In 1934, when Agatha Christie published “Murder on the Orient Express,” trains were still a popular means of transportation, and Asia was still called “the Orient.” Much has changed in the last 83 years — for example, in her entire life Agatha Christie never had more than one flavor of Oreos — yet her story is remarkably undated. The killing, the motives, and the types of people involved are timeless.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that if Kenneth Branagh’s new movie version feels stodgy and protracted, don’t blame Agatha. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049”) keep the 1934 setting and most of the story details, but add things like gunplay and a perilous chase on a wooden train bridge to give it some modern razzle-dazzle that feels beneath them and us. More subtly, they’ve emphasized the brilliance and righteousness of the main character, world-famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Branagh), constantly building him up as a virtuous defender of humanity and laying it on really thick as they do. This is supposed to be a lighthearted murder mystery, fellas. Take it down a notch with the moralizing and the speechifying.
After a Jerusalem-set prologue in which his deduction skills prevent a three-way holy war (SEE HOW IMPORTANT HE IS?), the elaborately mustached Poirot boards the title train with a dozen or so other passengers. It’s the first-class car, so everyone is wealthy and ostensibly respectable, though we don’t get to know most of them until they become suspects (and even then there are a few who clearly aren’t important — sorry Penelope Cruz!). There’s an oily American businessman among them, Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who is found murdered on the second morning of the three-day journey, just before the train is partially derailed by an avalanche (avalanche!) and must sit there until rescue comes. That gives Poirot plenty of time to solve the mystery, which he does at the behest of his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), a railway executive who’s onboard.
(Aside: This film would have had $100 million in pre-sales if the marketing had told people that Johnny Depp is the one who gets murdered.)
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C+ (1 hr., 54 min.; )