The detective is aces aboard Murder on the Orient Express. It’s the crime — and the ensuing whodunit — that doesn’t play.
Kenneth Branagh directs and wears the bushy, ridiculous (and ridiculously awesome) mustache of the iconic supersleuth Hercule Poirot in the ponderous all-star Agatha Christie adaptation (** out of four, rated PG-13; in theaters nationwide Friday). What starts out as a breezy Indiana Jones-style adventure screeches to a halt when someone’s stabbed to death on the title train, and most of the storytelling momentum is also killed in a mystery that’s surprisingly philosophical.
Set in 1934, the story introduces Poirot just as he’s about to crack his latest case at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. A persnickety Belgian who lives for Charles Dickens and perfectly prepared eggs, Poirot is extremely OCD and in aggressive need of balance: If one shoe accidentally ends up in horse poop, the other needs to be defiled as well. He's constantly annoyed by the imperfections in life, like an askew tie, though his exquisite attention to detail is a boon for his crime-solving career.
Desperate for a holiday but desperately needed in London for a case, Poirot is booked on the luxurious Orient Express by a friend (Tom Bateman) who promises “three days free of care, concern and crime.” The passenger list looks like a supersize game of Clue with a criminal art dealer (Johnny Depp) traveling with his personal secretary (Josh Gad) and butler (Derek Jacobi), a Russian princess (Judi Dench) and her maid (Olivia Colman), a weird German professor (Willem Dafoe), an unassuming governess (Daisy Ridley), an ultra-devout Spanish nurse (Penélope Cruz), a forthright doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and an American socialite (Michelle Pfeiffer) looking for Mr. Right.
Poirot's vacation goes awry when an avalanche strands the passengers and one of them winds up a corpse, kicking off a string of motives and alibis, as well as a twisty mélange of subplots that connect to the murder of a young girl years ago.
There’s a throwback vibe for sure, mainly to the celebrity-packed films of yesteryear like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Cannonball Run and the superior 1974 Orient Express adaptation (with Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman and more). With all its overly dramatic head turns and frowny faces, the new Murder largely wastes its extremely impressive cast: At least Depp makes the most of his menacing turn as a smarmy crook, Pfeiffer and Gad chew up some scenery, and Lucy Boynton is strong in limited action as a drug-addled countess.
Michael Green’s script is overcooked yet interestingly touches on how lies and loss can affect the human spirit. Branagh’s filmmaking surrounds those themes with splendor through thrilling scenes of the speeding Express and a neat tracking shot early on where Poirot walks the length of the train, letting him (and the audience) get a sense of the chaos to come.
Branagh’s best stuff comes in front of the camera as the eccentric investigator. Poirot’s bushy facial hair is a character in itself (he even wears a mustache guard when he sleeps), there’s a great sense of justice and sadness in his narrative, and he’s the only reason Orient Express doesn’t go off the rails.