For all the hype about boundary-pushing sex, the Fifty Shades franchise has always been shamelessly backward-looking. Fifty Shades Freed, the third movie based on the best-selling novels by E.L. James, opens with a showy wedding during which the demure fiction editor Anastasia Steele and the reformed sadist Christian Grey exchange mismatched vows: apparently, he has to do a whole lot of extra comforting and protecting. Within a few scenes, they are bickering about whether she can keep her maiden name for professional purposes and what time she's coming home.
Still, one aspect of the story proves presciently contemporary: in the second installment, Fifty Shades Darker, Anastasia was sexually harassed by her smooth boss at the publishing house where she works. Christian swooped in, bought the business, fired the guy and promoted Ana. But in Freed, the slimy Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), tragically unaware that in 2018 he is an endangered species, is back in action and bent on revenge.
And that, unfortunately, is about all the plot that writer Niall Leonard has got as he adapts his wife's books for the screen – and all the tension that director James Foley can muster now that Anastasia and Christian have come to a sensible arrangement about the whips and handcuffs. (Only on Tuesdays, or something like that.)
The sex in Freed is a bit more explicit than it was in its prettified predecessors – we get a look at Christian's pubic hair in one shot – but often less erotic because both the mystery and the threat have evaporated. We all know what's behind the door of Christian's playroom – and that Ana just needs to yell "Red" to get out. This instalment is firmer about naming the correct consensual limits to sadomasochistic play, but as S&M gives way to "Mrs." some kindly soul might have warned Ana and Christian that it's true what they say about marriage: it kind of kills the thrills.
So instead, Foley runs around manufacturing car chases and fluffing up a lame kidnapping plot that could barely fill a network cop show on an off night while Dakota Johnson's increasingly plastic Ana is forced to play Bond girl. There is no point sniffing about antics that stretch credulity – there was never anything believable in the Beauty-and-the-Beast story of the virginal English major who gets a mansion in the sky and private jet just as long as she agrees to be whipped – but one can complain that the new developments are boring, too.
Freed also sounds, if this is possible, even sillier than its two predecessors. After the first movie, both director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel were dropped from the series with industry press reporting continual battles over James's iron-handed insistence on adherence to her books and their stilted dialogue. As the author's husband, Leonard can presumably be counted on for his … well, fidelity at the very least. So, romance-novel boilerplate that sounded clichéd on the page becomes outright laughable as it's transferred to the screen: Ana tells Christian things such as, "You can't keep me in a cage," and, "I need to have my own identity," while he manfully replies, "I just want you to be safe."
In the first film, the sassy Johnson rendered Ana's "smart mouth" as a wry edge that brought some wit to the project without openly mocking the lines, but the franchise's hint of self-deprecation has evaporated as the sequels progress. In Freed, the actress has little to do but look pretty and Foley spends an awful lot of time gazing at her as she sleeps or framing her in windows or doorways. Meanwhile Jamie Dornan, whose delivery was always flatter than his co-star's, maintains his winning smile and killer abs in the role of Christian, but seems to have lost all interest in making lines such as, "I'm not ready to share you with anyone," or, "I'm going to drive you wild!" sound as though any human might possibly utter such things.
Did someone say "freed" already? Yes, please. Red. Red. Red.
Fifty Shades Freed opens Feb. 9