They’re baaa-aaaack! Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, that is. Every year around Valentine’s Day, Universal has been shrewdly serving up another chapter of the pair’s steamy, kinky relationship, and it all comes to an end now with the third installment of the cinematic adaptation of E L James’ publishing phenomenon. Of course none of these movies looks much different, and Fifty Shades Freedagain from a screenplay by Niall Leonard and direction by James Foley — delivers exactly what you might expect from a franchise that has already grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.

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There are yachts, private planes, gorgeous cars, multimillion-dollar homes, glamorous locations and of course all the bondage your heart desires. There’s even a scene involving sexual uses for vanilla ice cream that feels like a cross between Last Tango in Paris and 9 1/2 Weeks to whet your appetite this time. Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson are back in the lead roles, again photographed like sex objects with every pore examined in all its widescreen glory. As I say in my video review above, like its predecessors, Fifty Shades Freed almost seems structured like a musical except it stops every few minutes for a steamy sexual encounter rather than a song.

Once that’s over, the story — such as it is — resumes. This one starts off with the yin-yang relationship of Grey and Steele resulting finally in marriage vows and a honeymoon on the Cote d’Azur. Marrying off these two is a risky proposition for a tale that hinges on sexual tension, but no worries because this is no ordinary husband and wife. Back in Seattle (never looking more beautiful onscreen), Ana wants to resume her publishing career and starts talk of a baby, which doesn’t please Christian one bit as he doubts he could be much of a father. That might require different kinds of toys than the ones he entertains his new wife with.

Fifty Shades Freed
Universal

Between the usual husband-wife talk — like, “How would you like to be strapped up tonight?” — there is danger lurking again in the form of Ana’s wacko former boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), who has gone ballistic and seeks revenge on the couple. Christian’s much-examined troubled past also comes into play, with the whole trilogy racing to a “suspenseful” climax (yes, the word Universal is using the word prominently in its ad campaign). Don’t ask me how, but somehow Johnson actually manages to make Mrs. Grey into a genuine human being for whom we have some measure of empathy, a feat Dornan doesn’t really achieve with an acting range of A to B that is flatter than his stomach. I suppose that’s the idea, to keep this a guy who only gets emotional when he’s thinking of new ways to tie up the bride. He certainly looks the part even if he gives off the vibe that he might want to be anywhere but in a vehicle that teeters on the edge of softcore but retains a tasty bit of distance from going all the way. The sexual dialogue is, in fact, pretty tame, mostly relying on double entendres even Mae West might have rejected in her prime. They stand as the film’s attempt to inject some humor into a movie that’s played with much too straight a face.

There’s not much for the supporting cast to do here. Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden is back as Christian’s mom, but her role has been reduced to one superfluous scene near the end, nothing as juicy as the stuff she got to do with Kim Basinger in the last film. Johnson is strictly a cartoon villain this time around. Director Foley knows what is asked of him and, at least in terms of gloss, totally delivers in that department. This is, after all, pure fantasy — and if it gets the audience all hot and bothered, then it scored. Hats off to Nelson Coates for the slick production design, John Schwartzman for the glistening cinematography and a cool soundtrack that might make Best Buy reconsider its decision to stop selling CDs. Producers are Michael De Luca, E.L. James, Dana Brunetti and Marcus Viscidi. It scored a sizzling $5.6 million in Thursday previews ahead of Universal’s wide opening today.

Do you plan to see Fifty Shades Freed? Let us know what you think.