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Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Why?

Seriously, just… why?

I mean, I get the appeal of an all-star cast directed by Kenneth Branagh. I get the temptation to adapt a work from such a legendary grandmaster as Agatha Christie. I can even understand getting Michael Green to write the screenplay, as he’s currently the in-demand screenwriter du jour around Hollywood.

But “Murder on the Orient Express”? Really?

Even if anyone hadn’t read the book or seen any of the half-dozen adaptations already released across multiple media, it’s safe to assume that everyone knows the story. It’s not only one of Christie’s most iconic works, but it’s easily a definitive entry in the genre of mystery fiction. In large part because it has one of the most famous and universally known solutions in the history of the genre, right up there with “The butler did it”. So what’s the point in adapting a story — especially a mystery thriller! — in which everybody already knows the answer? What could these filmmakers bring to the table so the story could be made fresh and relevant to a modern audience?

Not much, as it turns out.

To be clear, Murder on the Orient Express (2017) is certainly not without merit. For starters, Kenneth Branagh is endlessly entertaining to watch as Hercule Poirot. It’s fascinating to see Branagh bury himself in this eccentric genius, bringing us a character who’s endlessly compelling in his sense of honor and his sense of humor. That said, Branagh the director has always been too overly fond of Branagh the leading actor, and it works very strongly against him here: There were so many close-ups so tightly pressed onto his face that I could see the adhesive on his mustache. Multiple times, in fact.

Even so, I’ll gladly admit that the filmmakers find ingenious ways around the claustrophobic environment of the train. I was really quite impressed with the set design, as well as the camera movements overhead, through windows, and even through multifaceted glass. Granted, the CGI was a little bit dodgy in some exterior shots, but not to the point of being a dealbreaker.

Then we have the rest of the cast. Obviously, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, and Derek Jacobi need no introduction and of course they all do superbly well. In particular, it was simply too much fun seeing Dench play an unrepentant self-absorbed bitch. Penelope Cruz does all right for herself, though she mostly doesn’t have to do much except look gorgeous. Michelle Pfeiffer chews up the screen in a way that’s positively delectable, and god damn is it good to see Leslie Odom Jr. on the screen. And of course Daisy Ridley proves herself a bona fide champ, more than holding her own against Branagh in multiple scenes.

But for me, the real surprise was Josh Gad. I didn’t think I’d ever be a fan of his, but it turns out I just hated his brand of comedy. Put him in a more dramatic role and god damn does this guy have a gift. I never would have guessed that he had this kind of darkness or desperation in him, but I guess that’s a huge part of what makes it so effective.

Then of course we have Johnny Depp. He’s been tremendously unpopular — nay, outright loathed offscreen lately, and I’m sure I can’t imagine why. (*hem hem*) In any case, conveying that unpopularity (and his years of experience as Captain Jack Sparrow, to boot) into a more villainous screen persona is easily one of the best career moves he’s ever made. It’s truly unsettling how easily he can slide into the slimy, sleazy, casually immoral, grotesquely charming nature of this character in particular.

Of course there are other no-name actors to pad out the cast, but none worthy of mention. They never stood a chance at leaving an impression against so many other heavyweights, but they don’t exactly drag down the proceedings or stand out as weak links, either. So what’s the problem? Well, let’s start with the action.

There are a couple of action scenes here and there, but they are obviously crowbarred in and completely unnecessary to the plot. And for this reason, they hold virtually no tension of any kind, at least not for long enough. Another problem is in the social commentary. Granted, this was present in the book to some extent, particularly with the few brief moments in which the various suspects/culprits are compared with members of a jury in the eclectic and multiracial USA. Yet the movie couldn’t even get this much right.

The filmmakers try to expand on what’s there by way of being more blunt on statements about race and speaking more broadly about concepts of justice. It all comes off as laughably weak, and more than a little desperate. It really does feel like the filmmakers and the studio execs were like “It’s a murder mystery thriller, so we’ve got to have some action in there! And it’s a huge A-list production released in November, based on a classic book, so it needs to be like, deep and intellectual and stuff.”

While these impulses are understandable, it shows a fatal misunderstanding of what made the book a classic. At its heart, the original book was just a damned fine brain-teaser. It was a compelling puzzle to try and unravel, which made the cleverly insidious solution all the more effective. And when the filmmakers spend so much time focusing on what the book isn’t, they do a terrible disservice to what the book actually is. Case in point: If the movie had taken more time to really go through the mystery and thoroughly establish the backstory involved, maybe it wouldn’t have looked like Poirot was pulling so much of the big climactic reveal right out of his ass. Seriously, he brings up connections to characters who were never even mentioned in the film proper, and that makes the whole thing look just plain ridiculous.

When Murder on the Orient Express (2017) plays to its strengths, it does just fine. The extraordinary cast does a lot to help us focus on the characters, drawing us in so we can try to parse out precisely who is lying and why. In fact, there are times when it’s so well done that it’s almost easy to forget the solution or wonder how we’re going to get there from here. Unfortunately, so much of the movie is trying to be something that it’s not and the whole film is weighed down as a direct result. Of course the filmmakers had to try something new in adapting a story so overdone, but their contributions are so half-assed that they fail to justify making the film at all.

Overall, this is definitely rental material. It’s certainly not bad, but nothing that demands to be seen immediately. And anyway, seeing the film on a smaller screen could make all the rampant close-ups just a tad less annoying.

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