Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Erotic Sexual Content, some Graphic Nudity, and Language
Directed by: James Foley
Written by: Niall Leonard
(based on the novel FIFTY SHADES DARKER by E.L. James)
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Bella Heathcote, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Kim Basinger, Marcia Gay Harden, Max Martini & Bruce Altman
Clearly, I’m not the ideal audience for the FIFTY SHADES trilogy, but they still manage to intrigue me in a trainwreck sort of way. Sometimes, you just have to watch something out of morbid curiosity. It’s the same reason why I’ll be eventually checking out THE EMOJI MOVIE after it’s hopefully bombed at the box office. All three FIFTY SHADES films fall into that category for me. I had more fun watching 2015’s FIFTY SHADES OF GREY than I thought I would, but that might have been the result of giggling at things that weren’t supposed to be funny and admittedly good visuals. The same can be said about 2017’s sequel FIFTY SHADES DARKER. It’s not the total failure that many critics have lambasted and it has a couple of positive qualities. For the most part though, DARKER is a step down from the already-low quality of its kinky predecessor.
After an ass-whippingly painful break-up with BDSM-obsessed billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) has moved on as an editor at a literary magazine. When Christian re-enters her life by creepily buying six giant photographs of Ana at an art show (because he doesn’t like other people looking at her), Ana stupidly decides to give him a second chance in a more conventional relationship…with a few kinks (get it?). Unfortunately for Ana and Christian, their second go-round encounters turbulence when a crazy former submissive returns and Ana’s lecherous boss also comes into play. Will this terribly mismatched couple make things work…again? Can the filmmakers pack in even more sex scenes than they did in the previous film? Where do those silver beads go? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out…or not because you’re better off not watching this R-rated version of softcore porn.
FIFTY SHADES DARKER feels like someone watched porn and thought to themselves, “You know what really works in these sexy smut films that are made purely with the purpose of getting people off? The crappy dialogue and filler in-between the erotic sex scenes! We should have more of that in our FIFTY SHADES sequel!” In so many ways, DARKER is a porno that’s lacking in sex. Don’t get me wrong. FIFTY SHADES DARKER has about 30 minutes worth of graphic depictions of sex, which leaves about 90 minutes of junk that’s loosely connected (at best) to resemble a plot.
With the exception of some brief elevator fingering and two secretly public “games,” DARKER’s sex scenes are dull and vanilla. Somehow, this sequel has even less BDSM-related material than the first film, though I guess that’s what I get for watching a movie where BDSM is portrayed as creepy abuse and not a loving relationship between two consenting adults who share a kinky fantasy. Still no ball gags or butt plugs this time around, but there are mentions of nipple clamps (they go on Ana’s fingers and not their intended targets) and toys in Christians’ infamous red room. It’s a pity that we don’t see many of these devices used (other than some rope, a blindfold, and the aforementioned silver beads), because that would have made for a sexier, more interesting movie…and likely would have pushed things into NC-17 territory.
When FIFTY SHADES DARKER isn’t in its flaccidly non-erotic sex scenes (which are always accompanied by shitty pop songs), the film has damn near 90 minutes of filler. This sequel tries to be more dramatic than the previous movie as Ana and Christian encounter the struggle of having a relationship over ownership (which Christian is so used to) and there are three half-assed antagonists this time around to boot. There’s phoned-in Lifetime movie thriller material as the crazy submissive subplot takes up about four scenes. Also, it’s made very clear that Ana’s boss will be the antagonist in the third (and thankfully) final film. I know this, because the filmmaker lazily clues the audience in with a final shot that seems like it came out of an entirely different film.
DARKER attempts to flesh out Jamie Dornan’s Grey through past trauma coming to light in the most clichéd and over-the-top ways possible. We get flashbacks to his abusive childhood through nightmares and exposition scenes. As Grey, Jamie Dornan looks bored out of his friggin’ mind and that comes across in his shoddy performance. His “emotional” scenes are phoned in and he’s simply not having any fun with the kinkier side of the material. At the very least, Dakota Johnson seems to be thrusting (literally at points) herself into the part of Anastasia. She’s not great by any means, but she’s certainly more convincing than him. Kim Basinger is also in this movie (for some reason) as Christian’s past abuser and a lame antagonist who pops up for three (count ’em, three!) whole scenes. She also receives a would-be dramatic send-off like she was a huge part of the plot, even though she was barely in this film!
On the redeemable side of things, FIFTY SHADES DARKER has unintentionally hilarious bits that make certain scenes fun in a trashy way and the visuals look good. I’ll likely see where things go in FIFTY SHADES FREED next year, because I might as well finish reviewing this trilogy and (again) there’s a silly trainwreck quality to these films. However, this sequel is a step down from its already bad predecessor in that most of the sex scenes are remarkably unsexy (especially given the kinky material that was begging for an NC-17) and the three-fourths of forced dramatic filler are messily glued together. If you’re a fan of the first film, there’s nothing I can say to dissuade you from watching this sequel. If you didn’t like the first film and were intrigued by this one, know that things only seem to be going downhill from here.