The first Fifty Shades of Grey was so forgettable that I actually had to go back and look at my review to see what I thought of it. (SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t like it.) In that regard, Fifty Shades Darker is a very faithful sequel; a milquetoast continuation of a bland romance between two boring people. What little plot there is resolves quickly and easily, but then the film keeps going, until you begin to understand what it feels like to be punished by a self-described sadist like Christian Grey.

Mr. Grey (Jamie Dornan) is trying to change his ways, though. His affair with Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) in the first Fifty Shades ended poorly because he was into BDSM and she was not. As Fifty Shades Darker begins, Christian reenters Ana’s life, begging for a second chance. None of that other stuff matters, he says. He just wants to be with Ana. One scene later, she takes him back. Drama!

That is something in very short supply in this movie. There are a fair number of R-rated sex scenes, repeated conversations about Christian’s controlling nature, and many (many) shots of Dornan and Johnson staring longingly into each other’s eyes. But there’s basically no tension, or even a story. One of Christian’s former submissives (Bella Heathcote) wanders around the edges of the frame projecting vague menace, but the movie forgets about her almost as soon as she’s introduced. Ana’s new boss (Eric Johnson) seems too good to be true and then tries to force himself on her at work. (He’s named “Jack Hyde,” because I guess giving him the middle initial “L.” would have been too on the nose?) Entire movies have been made about the subject of office sexual harassment, but in Fifty Shades Darker the matter is settled, mostly off-camera, in about 20 seconds.

Christian and Ana swap frowny faces about the various obstacles standing in the way of their love, but every single problem they encounter goes away with laughable ease. He’s a billionaire who controls a vast business empire without ever going to his office or looking at a computer. (Fifty Shades Darker contains exactly one scene of him “at work”; he spends it texting with Ana.) She gets promoted and then “wows” her bosses by suggesting they try publishing a book by someone who’s popular on the internet. (So bold!) Despite a rough upbringing alluded to in flashbacks and dreams, there’s seemingly nothing Christian Grey can’t walk away from unscathed, including a potentially fatal helicopter crash. I’ve read greeting cards with more suspense than Fifty Shades Darker.

Director James Foley, replacing Fifty Shades of Grey’s Sam Taylor-Johnson, shows almost no interest in the world immediately outside Ana and Christian’s relationship. (A bunch of the “important” supporting characters don’t even show up until Christian’s copter crash, at which point the movie is basically over.) The only member of the cast to make a major impression is Kim Basinger, playing a former lover of Christian’s who doesn’t approve of his relationship with Ana. Her brief appearance includes saucy putdowns and getting a glass of wine thrown in her face, hinting at the juicier, soapier film this Fifty Shades could have been.

On the plus side, Darker is filled with eccentric touches that are least good for a few quizzical chuckles. Several scenes are set in Christian Grey’s childhood bedroom, where a poster for The Chronicles of Riddick hangs prominently on one wall, lending a surreal air to the moment where our hero pours his heart out to Ana while Vin Diesel looms just out of focus over his shoulder. In the funniest sequence in the entire film, Ana ogles Christian during his morning workout routine, which includes some impressively flexible work on a pommel horse — because what eccentric sadomasochistic billionaire doesn’t have a pommel horse in his house?

Johnson and Dornan remain an attractive and physically compatible couple, but even with the switch of directors, the sex scenes are still a lot less kinky (and the characters a lot less dynamic) than the subject matter suggests. By modern Hollywood standards they’re pretty steamy, but that’s less of a compliment for the film and more of an indictment of the American movie industry, which has essentially abandoned sex as a subject. Valentine’s Day moviegoers looking for a little titillation at the multiplex this year must choose between Fifty Shades or staying home. No wonder the first movie was a hit even though it stunk. Adult audiences are starved for sexy entertainment. They deserve a better class of smut than this.


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