Agatha Christie was the undisputed master of detective murder mysteries in her era, but the genre has come a long way since that time. With that in mind, Kenneth Branagh's attempt to re-introduce the world to Christie's famous detective Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express results in a very mixed cinematic experience.
The story opens in Jerusalem in the mid-1930s, as Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is looking to step back from crime-solving for some much-needed rest and relaxation. Before Poirot can find peace, he's called back to London to hunt yet another killer. To get there swiftly, he travels to Istanbul, where he must lean on his scoundrel friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) to hitch a ride on his lavish Orient Express locomotive.
The obsessively particular Poirot soon finds himself crammed into the company of twelve strangers also traveling the train, including a gangster (Johnny Depp), a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), a governess (Daisy Ridley), and a flirty old widow (Michelle Pfeiffer). When one of the passengers turns up dead, Poirot's confined company turns into a lineup of suspects, whose various lies and half-truths the detective must sift through, in order to determine who did the crime.
Branagh directs Murder on the Orient Express with the energy and gusto of a dedicated Agatha Christie fan, but it's clear his true passion is clearly being in front of the camera, playing up the flamboyant character of Hercule Poirot. In many ways, Orient Express is Branagh's "Jack Sparrow" breakout - a character of such eccentric mannerisms and dialogue that he steals the show. Ignoring the cynical implications of a director putting his own character on the pedestal, Orient Express is at its best serving as an introductory character study of Poirot; it's just that the rest of the narrative pales in comparison.
On the directorial front, Branagh excels at scenes where Poirot interacts with other characters in conversation or formal interviews (which is much of the first and second acts). However, the director's depiction of the actual murder mystery event, and the later climatic scenes of Poirot solving the case, are clumsily handled in terms of their camerawork and overall visual style, with some choppy edits in the few "action sequences" that take place. The climatic scene of the investigation goes over the cliff with its sappy pontification and melodrama, and is wildly out of place with the quick-witted and clever film that mostly preceded it.
The real attraction of Murder on the Orient Express is the high-profile ensemble cast it pulls together. Johnny Depp is surprisingly restrained in his 'Depp-isms,' offering an intriguing sidewinder character; esteemed veteran Michelle Pfeiffer steals every scene she chews up; Judi Dench commands attention with hardly a word; while Tom Bateman is a very charming scoundrel, and Star Wars star Daisy Ridley pulls off a well-measured slow-burn character arc. Other cast members are a bit too flat and one-note (Penelope Cruz), while others are totally forgettable (Manuel Garcia-Ruflo, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe). In the end, the spectacle of seeing so many talented stars interacting in playfully devilish exchanges will be a major draw for more seasoned cinema fans, and Orient Express delivers enough of it to make their experience worthwhile.
For those unfamiliar with the story: Murder on the Orient Express was a groundbreaking murder mystery in its day (1934), but the genre has been so exhaustively explored since then that the material isn't nearly as fresh or effective as it used to be. A lot of viewers will be able to easily piece together the mystery from early on in the story, since viewers are now trained to zero in on things like seemingly random coincidence - scrutiny that quickly unravels the "mystery" of this murder. That's not a fault of the filmmakers, mind you: old material simply gets "old" for a reason.
In the end, Murder on the Orient Express is a classic story that's best enjoyed by the elder sector of cinema fans that enjoy such classics. For any modern movie fans looking for a good murder mystery: this trip down memory lane probably isn't for you.
Murder on the Orient Express is now in theaters. It is 1 hour 54 minutes long. It is Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.