Director Kenneth Branagh attempts to reinvigorate the splashy, old-fashioned whodunit with "Murder on the Orient Express," the latest adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie novel (Sidney Lumet's 1974 version, starring Albert Finney, being the most famous). Branagh has crafted a lush, solidly made film, though it doesn't otherwise do much to distinguish itself. While the film may please fans looking for a straightforward adaptation of Christie's work, most will likely be left disappointed by how sedate it all feels.
In addition to directing, Branagh also takes on acting duties, starring as Christie's most beloved character, the brilliant Belgian detective HerculePoirot -- self-professed "greatest detective in the world." After solving a case in Istanbul, the investigator heads back to London, accepting a friend's offer of a last minute seat on the titular luxury train. But duty comes calling when one of the passengers suddenly turns up dead in the middle of the night. When an avalanche derails the train, the travelers are left stranded with a murderer amongst them, and everyone's a suspect.
The film boasts, as they say, "an all-star cast," including Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Penélope Cruz, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, "Hamilton" star Leslie Odom Jr., and Derek Jacobi. As Poirot interviews the passengers one by one, everyone is given a moment or two to shine, though it's not enough time for most characters to leave much of an impression. Still, a few stand out: Pfeiffer clearly relishes her role, and Ridley remains a captivating screen presence. Of the minor players, Tom Bateman has a lot of fun as the train's playboy owner.
Depp's presence is a rather unfortunate reminder that despite the appearance that Hollywood is attempting to clean house, it's mostly remained silent when it comes to the accusations that have been swirling around him for some time. I don't think it's giving too much away to say that Depp's character -- an Al Capone-esque gangster named Ratchett -- is the victim that the murder plot hinges upon. As such, the plot makes for oddly satisfying viewing for anyone like me who's grown tired of seeing Depp's face on the big screen with far too much frequency.
Too often Branagh The Director seems too in love with Branagh The Actor, keeping the spotlight on his own fussy, flamboyant performance. There's also references to a backstory involving the detective's long lost love that are clumsily shoehorned in. Around the fourth time Branagh started looking mournful while gazing at a framed picture, and whispering, "Katherine..." I'd had more than enough. As ostentatious as Branagh's performance is, he still manages to be upstaged by his character's truly ridiculous moustache.
Tasked with making the story feel modern without updating the setting, screenwriter Michael Green ("Blade Runner 2049" and "Logan") attempts to add some subtext through the ever-so-slightly more diverse cast, threading in undercurrents of the era's backward race and class politics.
Sporadically the film lurches into an action scene (or the occasional fisticuffs that pass for action in comparison to the relatively snooze-y scenes they fall between), but they're ineptly staged, making it impossible to tell who's doing what to whom in relation to where. Their clumsiness is especially odd considering that Branagh's capably handled much more elaborate action sequences in "Thor" and "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit."
Still, the film mostly looks great, and the production design by Jim Clay captures the posh feel of luxury travel in the 1930's. Branagh embellishes things with long, showy tracking shots that are fun to watch, but never really help give a sense of space to the film's enclosed locations. Shooting with 65mm film cameras, he aims for an epic feel, filling the movie with endless shots of the train whooshing through snowy mountain landscapes. But their overly-CGI'd nature renders them considerably less impressive than they should be.
As "Murder on the Orient Express" chugs along toward its somewhat contrived conclusion (even Agatha Christie enthusiasts usually admit the solution to this particular yarn doesn't rank among her most inspired). The plot never works up the energy to create a modicum of tension or suspense, so it never feels like the fun, closed door romp it might have been. (Or maybe I just want more "Clue" in my murder mysteries.) Where most such tales aim for a mounting sense of paranoia and suspicion, this one just sits dead on the tracks.