The 1974 version of “Murder on the Orient Express” was a time-capsule-worthy artifact of its time, a star-studded affair that brought together the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery. Producer, director and star Kenneth Branagh seeks to replicate those charms in a mildly effective retelling of Agatha Christie’s tale, a reasonably well-oiled machine that hits bumps in the latter stages of its journey.
Branagh sports an impressively ornate mustache as Hercule Poirot, the brilliant Belgian detective, who is amusingly introduced unlocking a mystery in Jerusalem. After that, he’s eager for at least a little rest and relaxation when summoned back to Europe, boarding a luxury train as it chugs through the snow-encrusted mountains.
Those plans go rather spectacularly awry, naturally, when Poirot encounters an unctuous dealer named Ratchett (Johnny Depp, painfully hamming it up ‘30s gangster style), who seeks the detective’s protection, having received threatening notes. Ratchett soon turns up dead, the victim of multiple stab wounds, leaving Poirot working against a deadline to decipher what really happened.
The eclectic roster of passengers leaves him no shortage of suspects, with Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton”), Daisy Ridley (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe and Derek Jacobi among the suspects. Sifting through impossibly minute clues, the process will eventually test Poirot’s views about justice, grinding toward a payoff in which he presents his elaborate theory of the case.
Written by Michael Green, this “Orient Express” makes a few questionable choices, from the distractingly overdone musical score to rushing through the climax in a way that shortchanges the character interactions and blunts the payoff.
Still, Branagh clearly has fun with the eccentric nature of the Poirot character, whose gift of insight is a blessing when it comes to solving crimes but a curse in its effects on his daily existence.
In that regard, he’s brought a slightly more nuanced dimension to the role relative to Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov’s showy takes. “If it were easy, I would not be famous,” Poirot mutters, playing off the meta aspects of this familiar staple of movies and TV, while devoting less time grousing about being mistaken for a Frenchman.
While not as glitzy as its predecessor, in a “They don’t mint movie stars quite like they used to” way, “Murder on the Orient Express” is a polished enterprise with just enough star power to make it across the finish line. What remains to be seen is whether this sort of throwback can entice people to the theater at a moment when what amount to mid-sized movies have been squeezed by blockbusters and an abundance of options on screens large and small.
Unlocking that riddle, frankly, is a task even Poirot, with his grand powers of perception, would be hard-pressed to intuit.
“Murder on the Orient Express” premieres Nov. 10 in the U.S. It’s rated PG-13.