You’re watching closely, listening intently. You’re trying to follow Detective Poirot’s keen instinct, while trying to resist the fact that you’ve lost him many scenes ago. You’re accepting the clichés, for whatever they’re worth, because you’re hoping it will all pay off in the end.
And then, all of a sudden, the end is here – seemingly out of nowhere, with little fanfare and even fewer clues that the mystery was ever close to being solved. The payoff? Miniscule.
That’s what it’s like watching “Murder on the Orient Express,” a modern retelling of the 1934 Agatha Christie novel that will undoubtedly be overlooked by the more notable movies of Oscar Season, and one which wouldn’t be very memorable even if it was released in March.
“Murder” follows the presumably world-famous Hercule Poirot, and what he lacks in implied physical strength he makes up for in keen-eyed intellect as he goes around cracking the uncrackable crimes. No small detail slips by him unnoticed, as shown by his introductory sequence that might contain 90 percent of the film’s energy.
He’s proud of his reputation, but not boastful, which is why a few days on the Orient Express as he travels to London provides a seemingly welcome respite.
Only it doesn’t (shocker). When a suspicious art dealer is murdered on the train while it is simultaneously, conveniently, temporarily thrown off the tracks by a mini-avalanche, how else should Poirot decide to pass the time but by solving the mystery?
“Murder” is a film which – unlike its protagonist – doesn’t know where its priorities lie. The snazzy, self-aware attitude teased by its Imagine Dragons-infused marketing is nowhere to be seen, and by the end it’s clear the film is more concerned with making grand statements about justice and vigilantism. But in the context of its convoluted and rushed plot that feels like they forgot to film a few scenes, we don’t ever figure out why we should care.
Perhaps a bigger mystery at the core of the Kenneth Branagh-directed film is the way it utilizes its ensemble cast. It’s speckled with Academy Award-caliber talent portraying diverse personalities a la “The Hateful Eight.” But “Murder” is inexplicably more interested in Branagh’s Poirot, who treads the line between tolerable a slightly absurd for most of the time we’re with him. Seriously, put the FBI on this. WANTED: Consistently tolerable performances.
Poirot’s dedication is authentic, but sometimes it’s a struggle to be fully on-board with Branagh’s depiction when it’s a cross between the Monopoly Man and a bumbling Inspector Clouseau. You’ll either not care about the individual “suspects” being considered or you simply forget about them, which is a shame considering how personal the plot turns as the dots begin to connect.
Up until the final moments, they’ve served as barely more than props.
Haris Zambarloukos is the eye behind the camera for “Murder,” and a lot of credit is owed to him for keeping the story as engaging as it is, even if its most engaging moments resemble a thriller with about a minute and 45 seconds of actual thrill. He does some interesting things with the lens, but in the end his talents can’t overcome a weak script and subpar direction.
The mysterious disappearance around the three-quarter mark of whatever humor and charm the film had for its first hour looms large, as does the sinking feeling that sets in when the audience realizes “Murder” isn’t nearly as thematically gripping as it needs to be to stand out in 2017.
It’s like your old uncle who likes to think he knows what’s hip, but really just ends up embarrassing you. Honestly, did the movie’s title have to steal the already-iconic look of one of last year’s best movies?
But perhaps that’s what Branagh intends – an ostensibly slow-burn of a film that, if nothing else, emits some semblance of a more classic form of moviemaking. You can pay close attention as our detective does, and perhaps even find out the killer before he does, but there’s still no emotional heft for it to mean anything once it’s all said and done.
That can make it a wonder of a film for some depending on your taste, but when Detective Poirot is still announcing an hour and a half into the proceedings that “There is a murderer within us!” it’s hard to believe Branagh was ever completely confident with what he had.
This isn’t the most absorbing mystery to grace the big screen in recent months, or even the best train movie in recent years. It might not be trying to be either. But most strikingly, the thing Branagh fails to recognize is that the question at the center of “Murder on the Orient Express” isn’t the whodunit as much as the whowantedthis.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench
Directed by Kenneth Branagh