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"MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS"
(2017) (Kenneth Branagh, Daisy Ridley) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A legendary detective tries to solve a murder that's just occurred on a train where many people are potential suspects.
PLOT:
It's 1934 and legendary detective Hercule Poirot (KENNETH BRANAGH) simply wants a little rest and relaxation in between cases and ends up booked on the Orient Express traveling from Istanbul to London. It's not long into the trip, however, that he's met by Edward Ratchett (JOHNNY DEPP), a small-time gangster turned novice art dealer who's traveling with his assistant, Hector MacQueen (JOSH GAD), and butler, Edward Henry Masterman (DEREK JACOBI).

It seems that Ratchett has sold some fake art to mob figures and has since been receiving ominous and threatening notes. Accordingly, he wants to hire Poirot to watch his back on the trip. The detective politely declines and retires to his quarters for the night. But when an avalanche ends up derailing the train overnight, Poirot discovers that Ratchett has been murdered.

With railway man Bouc (TOM BATEMAN) urging Poirot to solve the crime before they're freed from the snow -- and conductor Pierre Michel (MARWAN KENZARI) assuring him that no one came or went from the locked car overnight -- the detective reluctantly agrees to work the case. Beyond the possible suspects of Hector and Edward, there's also Mary Debenham (DAISY RIDLEY), a young governess who Poirot earlier overhead seemingly conspiring with Dr. Arbuthnot (LESLIE ODOM JR.) about some suspicious matter before boarding the train.

There's also Count Rudolph Andrenyi (SERGEI POLUNIN) who's traveling with Countess Elena Andrenyi (LUCY BOYNTON), with the Count having been earlier seen getting violent with admirers, thus making him a potential suspect. And some want to point fingers at passenger Biniamino Marquez (MANUEL GARCIA-RULFO) simply because of his ethnicity, while Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (WILLEM DAFOE) has a well-defined racist attitude.

Less likely but still on the detective's radar is missionary Pilar Estravados (PENELOPE CRUZ), socialite Caroline Hubbard (MICHELLE PFEIFFER), and elderly Princess Dragomiroff (JUDI DENCH) and her younger assistant, Hildegarde Schmidt (OLIVIA COLMAN). Collecting various clues and observing how all of the potential subjects respond to his line of questioning, Poirot sets out to discern the identity of the culprit or culprits.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
In the world of magic, part of the fun is trying to figure out how the magician pulled off his or her illusion-based feat. Of course, try as you might to figure it out, you sort of don't want to as that would obviously ruin the experience should you see it again. In that regard, you both want and don't want to solve the mystery, a dichotomy that leaves many a viewer in quite the solution related conundrum.

In the same vein, people also like to try to solve fiction-based mysteries before the author or filmmaker delivers the final whodunit reveal. But unlike magic, they hate things being left unresolved and want the final answer. Thus, it's up to those who create and then fuel such tales of mystery to make that one-off experience as entertaining, enjoyable and satisfying as possible. The problem, though, is that many of today's readers and viewers are much more savvy and sophisticated in these sorts of storytelling matters than their counterparts more than half a century ago, what with having experienced a greater sampling of detective-based works.

Thus, while readers of Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express" were probably enthralled by the story, characters and final reveal back in the 1930s when that tale was first published, I don't think today's moviegoers will have quite the same reaction upon seeing this second big-screen adaptation of that work that's now hitting theaters in a movie of the same name.

And that's a shame because the film has a great cast, a handsome production sense, and I think there's a definite market for modern films that have the look and feel of pics of old, without any of the usually added snark and satire. It's just that this newest version of the tale -- from screenwriter Michael Green and director Kenneth Branagh who also stars as the lead character -- ends up stuck in mediocrity not long after the titular mode of transportation derails following an avalanche strike.

It's then that the crew and passengers on board that train learn that one passenger (played by Johnny Depp, thankfully foregoing any degree of zaniness) has met his maker via twelve stab wounds of varying depths, dominant hand use, and intensity. With both doors on the train car having been locked overnight, someone in that relatively small space is the perp and it's up to the world's greatest detective -- a self-admission -- to solve the case.

Having already seen him be a master of deduction and clue ciphering in the opening prologue, we watch as Hercule Poirot (Branagh) goes to work sizing up the various suspects. He's an interesting character played with verve by the veteran actor, something that sadly can't be said for most of his co-stars who play the potential perps. And that's not really the fault of the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, PenÚlope Cruz, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley among various others. It's just that there are too many characters and not enough time to make any of them that interesting and thus the overall story suffers from that.

We watch as the detective interviews all of them -- after examining the murder scene for clues, some of which seem real, some possibly staged -- but just when we start to get interested in one, it's on to the next, and then another and so on. And once it's revealed that the present day story has a connection to a kidnapping and murder in the past, it's not that hard to figure out the answer long before the filmmakers provide it. And none of that has to do with having read the original novel (I haven't) or having seen the equally star-studded original film from 1974 (I did, but that was long, long ago and thus I remember absolutely nothing about it).

In the end, Branagh and company don't put enough old-fashioned, moviemaking magic into the proceedings to make us care or hold our attention. It's not a debacle by any means, but like a magic trick with too many pieces and a mystery that's far too easy -- and frankly boring -- to solve, "Murder on the Orient Express" ends up feeling like sitting on a train watching a bunch of famous people. It's interesting for a while, but ends up redundant and not as entertaining as one might expect. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 7, 2017 / Posted November 10, 2017


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