Ana has moved on from her relationship with domineering Christian, a kink-infused romance charted in the earlier film. She now works at a publishing company as an assistant to fiction editor Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). Christian, it turns out, hasn't let go of his feelings for Ana. Shortly after meeting at a photo exhibit, Christian begins mapping out new terms for what he hopes will be a reignited affair. This time, Ana doesn't want to submit to Christian's every whim. Whereas in the first film Ana was almost regressive in her innocence and inexperience, she's now a seasoned woman.
Let's face facts here, the Fifty Shades series is basically a bigger-budget (and tamer) version of the Red Shoe Diaries and other "Skinamax"-type erotica. What makes the Shades flicks marginally more interesting is Dakota Johnson's knowing take on the material—without being flat-out disrespectful to the material, she delivers her ham-fisted dialogue with a hint of comic irony. The same can't be said for Jamie Dornan, but the whole improbable romance wouldn't work if he were anything but deadly serious. As for the steamy scenes, there isn't much to get worked up about here. If anything, director James Foley (replacing the first film's Sam Taylor-Johnson) and screenwriter Niall Leonard (replacing the first film's Kelly Marcel) seem to have pulled their punches.
Much of the drama in Darker springs from the rivalry between Jack Hyde and Christian. Hyde wants his relationship with Ana to be more than professional. Christian reacts predictably, but the rivalry subplot doesn't really go anywhere. As it turns out, the whole Jack/Christian thing is a setup for the concluding film in the trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed, due next year. In fact, we are treated to a sneak preview of Freed midway through Darker's credits. As with many middle entries in a trilogy, Darker has no real ending. In fact, it functions primarily as a prolonged setup/tease for Freed (the two films were shot back-to-back).
Like the first film, Darker is a guilty pleasure. And even in that category, it doesn't exactly soar. Why Ana and Christian continue to pursue each other (when they're really so terribly mismatched) is anyone's guess. Yes, they have physical chemistry together but Christian's demands are a pretty high price for such pleasures (a price Ana clearly doesn't want to pay, yet she can't move on). Thankfully there are a few weird tangents that intrude on the overall blandness. Bella Heathcote turns as a homicidal ex-submissive of Christian's. And Kim Basinger plays Christian's business partner Elena (she'll be back for Freed to continue cat-fighting with Christian's adoptive mom, played by Marcia Gay Harden).
Universal Studios' Blu-ray offers an "unrated cut" of Darker, which runs about ten minutes longer than the theatrical version (also included). The other special features are pretty skimpy, including two deleted scenes that total less than two minutes. There's a series of six puffy featurettes (about 40 minutes in total) that mainly serve to promote the film. "Intimate with Darker" is the most interesting piece, taking a closer look at the staging of the film's steamier moments.