Director Kenneth Branagh Derails "Murder On The Orient Express"

Agatha Christie’s 1934 crime novel Murder On The Orient Express first hit the silver screen in 1974 under the watchful eye of “12 Angry Men” director Sidney Lumet. Even then the material was a throwback, leaning on a starry cast to sell its train-based murder mystery. Led by Albert Finney as mustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the pic’s assemblage of acting talent was and remains downright mythological; a gathering of icons like Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, and Vanessa Redgrave dooming any ensemble that might attempt a remake.

Names like Josh Gad (“Frozen”) and Daisy Ridley (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) do little to assuage the feeling.

To be fair to Kenneth Branagh, director and star of the new “Murder On The Orient Express,” he does have heavy hitters like Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi at his disposal. And dispose of them he does, letting them do just as little as their colleagues. Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Penelope Cruz are among the names that go to waste as Branagh commandeers the movie, turning it into a showcase for himself as Poirot. Everyone else is left to circle the drain in a pretty but pointless ode to an era of storytelling gone by.

Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have reimagined Poirot as an obsessive-compulsive type, his razor-sharp detective skills at odds with a dopey persona that evokes an even less amusing version of Steve Martin’s maligned interpretation of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. Branagh and Green hang their hats here and it’s where their movie dies, their attempt to turn Poirot into a goofy 1930s superhero coming off feebly and depriving the rest of the players of air.

Depp’s turn as rotten art dealer Samuel Ratchett, the man who sets into motion the titular mystery, is little more than an extended cameo. Despite the actor’s recent track record, his presence is missed in the second half of the movie. Without a grimacing Depp to lighten the mood, the other performers bleed together, moping around as one-dimensional train passengers and exceptionally boring murder suspects. Viewers familiar with Christie’s text or Lumet’s film will understand how crucial it is that these characters come to life as more than window dressing – and how badly Branagh and Green fail them.

The only reason “Orient Express” doesn’t ever self-destruct is because it never gets moving in the first place. Branagh’s incessant winks at the camera notwithstanding, it’s a sluggish affair, never making Christie’s novel its own, never making much of a case for its own existence. Its shallowness is most evident in its parade of CG-heavy establishing shots; they string the skimpy narrative and skimpier characterizations together before director and screenwriter are forced to move their story forward. By this point, the film’s numbing effect has become irreversible.

Who would have thought “Murder” could be so dull?

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: November 10, 2017
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Michael Green
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Michael Pena, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Derek Jacobi, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Lucy Boynton
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence and thematic elements)