Special Effects: C
After seeing Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express, I'm rather eager to see Sidney Lumet's 1974 original. I've spent years insisting that movies should be judged on their own merits, but that's just the thing here: Branagh's apparent "update" only barely stands on its own merits. The original, at least, still has a sort of fame -- more than forty years on, it still has name recognition, anyway. And trust me on this one: no one's going to be talking about Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express in 2060.
For now, the current version has its moments, and that's about all it's got. Branagh stars as the famous Inspector Hercule (pronounced "Er-Cule," he notes several times) Poirot, complete with a mustache stretched so far across his face it could only called majestic. And I hate mustaches! Poirot's gets its own bit of humor, though, complete with a plastic covering vaguely in the same shape of it which he sleeps in. Anyway, Branagh puts himself center stage, hamming it up onscreen seemingly more than the rest of the A-list ensemble cast combined. As with the story itself, it gets a mite tedious after a while.
This most problematic element of the story is clear from the very beginning, with an extended introductory sequence not even set on the fabled train out of Istanbul. We see Poirot address a crowd of adversarial religions accusing either a priest, a rabbi or an imam of theft. Branagh is introducing us to the cleverness of this central character, here thanks to the well-timed placement of his cane into the Wailing Wall. The thing is, he takes a tad too long with it. I just found myself thinking, When the hell are we going to get on the train?
Poirot finds himself with a last-minute need to get on the train, and once he finally arrives at the station, here we are introduced to all of the first-class passengers who will later become suspects to the murder of a nasty businessman played by Johnny Depp -- who, let's face it, is phoning it in. Many of the other characters are much more fun: Judy Dench as a surly elderly princess; Josh Gad as the businessman's assistant; Willem Dafoe as a suspicious German; Penélope Cruz as a semi-comically pious woman; Michelle Pfeiffer as serial widow Caroline Hubbard continues her recent streak of being great in not-so-great movies. There's more, but in continuing the list we get right back to the aforementioned tedium. As in: some of these passengers are delightfully shady characters; others are fundamentally forgettable. Daisy Ridley is also in this movie, apparently.
I did get a good laugh a few times at this movie, which is peppered with some well-placed gags and quips. There are too many characters, however, and not enough time spent with any given one of them -- all the while far too much attention is focused on Poirot himself. This guy and his Belgian accent could have benefited from taking it down a notch.
There is an inherent appeal in the mystery of a whodunit on a train careening through Eastern Europe. It's too bad so much of the scenery is transparently done via green screen, rendering what should be majestic landscapes rather inert and static. There isn't near enough depth to the visuals in this film as there should be. And then there are the odd staging choices: sitting all the suspects along a table just inside the opening of a train tunnel, spaced out like they're staging The Last Supper. Meanwhile, Branagh as Poirot is literally sharing half the screen with the huge stream train behind him as he works out who the culprit is. Okay, we get it! There's a train!
I do wonder how many people unfamiliar with the story are able to work out who the murderer is. I suppose it's to the credit of original novelist Agatha Christie that I was genuinely surprised by the revelation at the end. Until that point, though, Poirot leads a great many conversations that overstay their welcome. That runs counter to the intrigue we're supposed to be gripped by all the while. This is one train ride that could have used a jump in pacing -- rather than literally stalling on a CGI railroad bridge in the mountains.