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Fusty Turns Fresh and Fun in Christie-like Whodunit

by MIKE ORLOCK

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (PG-13), currently in select theaters but also streaming on Netflix, is more than the customary sequel that inevitably follows a hit movie. It plays like the next chapter in an ongoing franchise that promises to bring us the further adventures of master sleuth Benoit Blanc, showcasing his ability to crack any case and unravel any riddle thrown his way.

Blanc is cut from the same bespoke cloth as Agatha Christie’s famed detective Hercule Poirot (most recently resurrected in a couple of hit remakes by Kenneth Branagh), but as played by Daniel Craig – Mr. James Bond himself – the Southern gentleman with the genteel accent and affable disposition has a shorter fuse and more direct manner than his Belgian counterpart with the grandiose mustache.

Glass Onion takes Blanc to a private Greek island owned by tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), where Blanc crashes a reunion of Bron’s longtime friends and business associates who are there to participate in an elaborate parlor game that Bron has devised of solving his own murder. 

Bron is both intrigued and delighted that the renowned detective somehow received one of his patented invitations – a seamless wooden box that must be interpreted to be opened – and he considers his unexpected guest a colorful addition to the festivities he has planned. It’s not long, however, before play turns to murder, and Blanc seems like Bron’s best chance to survive the night.

The friends and associates whom Bron has assembled are a mixed bag of the rich, the famous and the shameless (played by an exceptionally game cast), and each, we learn, has a complicated history with the self-styled eccentric genius. 

There’s flaky internet influencer and fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), for instance, who drags along her browbeaten personal assistant, Peg (Jessica Henwick). Bron has bankrolled Jay throughout her career, but she has a knack for saying the wrong thing to the wrong reporters. Her latest gaffe – revealing that Third World sweatshop laborers manufacture her ridiculously overpriced sweatpants – might cost Bron his tailored silk shirt, and he’s expecting Jay to take a very public fall to save his market position.

There’s also Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), a muscle head YouTube star who wants his old friend to include him in a leveraged acquisition of a media conglomerate as “on-air talent.” Cody has brought along his current squeeze, a randy young woman named Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) who has bedroom history with Bron that Cody might be trying to exploit for his own benefit.

Kathryn Hahn’s Claire Debella is a scandal-plagued governor hoping to jump from the hot seat into a Senate seat. Her political ambitions depend on the largesse of her old college pal, but Bron expects some quid pro quo for his money: He wants Debella to back an energy company he owns with an exclusive state contract to generate power through a revolutionary fusion process called Klear – one that his own chief scientist in charge of the project, Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), says is too risky to market.

Finally, there’s Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), Bron’s onetime closest friend and business partner, who was the brains behind his success but who has been bitterly estranged from him during the past decade following a messy squabble that spilled into the courts and resulted in her ouster from the company she helped to create. Would Brand’s anger and resentment against Bron and the “friends” who turned against her and lied under oath extend to murderous revenge?

That’s what Blanc is keen to uncover once bodies start dropping. Craig, of course, is best known for playing the most recent iteration of the world’s most famous secret agent, but he really seems to enjoy this latest turn in his acting career. The steely gaze and chiseled features are still there, but Blanc isn’t a killer – he’s a brainy detective – and Craig gives him just the right balance of brilliance and buffoonery to make the man both engaging and comical.

Writer-director Rian Johnson has always had a breezy way with dialogue and crafting characters whose idiosyncrasies make for situational comedy. His first film, Brick (2005), was a wholly original mystery that irreverently melded the private-eye genre with a high school satire. Looper (2012) was a trippy sci-fi noir that played head games with worm holes, hired assassins and Bruce Willis. Even his “troubled” venture into the Star Wars galaxy, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017), was a funny subversion of the Luke Skywalker legacy that angered more fans than it pleased but was one of the more original leaps into the saga. 

The Knives Out franchise, though, has really allowed Johnson to demonstrate his distinctive set of skills to great effect. The fact that he’s succeeded in turning the sort of fusty drawing-room mystery that Christie perfected to the point of cliché into something fun, fresh and hip again is reason enough to applaud him. I look forward to seeing where Johnson takes Benoit Blanc – and us – next.

In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for The Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.