Cinema Dispatch: Murder on the Orient Express

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Murder on the Orient Express and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

I’m hardly what you’d call “well read” as most of my cultural education comes from television and movies followed by people TALKING about television and movies, so while I’m aware that there’s a book out there called Murder on the Orient Express written by someone whose work I should really get around to reading, I don’t actually know what the story is about nor who the killer is which I GUESS would make me the target audience for a slick Hollywood retelling of the story starring some of the most beloved character actors out there… and Johnny Depp.  I’m certainly excited to see this as I do love me a good mystery, and seeing a movie is ALMOST as good as reading a book… right?  Anyway, does Kenneth Branagh manage to successfully bring the Agatha Christie classic to the silver screen once again, or does the brilliance of her work get lost in the midst of his vision for the material?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins with the famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) solving yet another world class mystery in the heart of Jerusalem and is now ready to take a much deserved vacation to recharge his mystery solving batteries!  As luck would have it, he runs into an old friend named Bouc (Tom Bateman) who gets him a ticket on the one and only Orient Express which Bouc is the director of.  Sadly for Poirot’s plans of leisure, not only does the train get stuck in an avalanche but one of the passengers (Johnny Depp) comes down with a bad case of MURDER!  With only some minor cajoling from Bouc, Poirot begins to investigate The Case of the Stabbed Dude by looking into the pasts of all the other passengers (Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, and Miranda Raison) to see if there’s anything to connect one of them to the guy sleeping in a pool of his own blood.  Will Poirot uncover the criminal mastermind who was unfortunately enough to be sharing a train ride with the world’s greatest detective?  Just who was the man who got viciously murdered, and what could have motivated someone to commit such an act?  Wait… isn’t it a bit TOO convenient that the train JUST SO HAPPENED to get stuck after a murder is committed!?

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LOOK OUT, POIROT!  IT WAS THE TRAIN ALL ALONG!!

To a certain extent, my utter ignorance on the original work is going to make my review of this latest adaptation rather unhelpful for the millions of people who haven’t been living under the same rock as me as I have no way coming at this in terms of BEING an adaptation.  I cannot tell you if this is a butchering of the Agatha Christie novel, but what I can say as a layman film critic is that this is a fantastically acted and intermittently stylistic murder mystery that manages to stay engaging despite some obvious rough edges.  I don’t know how Christie fans will feel or even those who have seen the many adaptation that have already been produced (including one from Japan back in 2015), but this neophyte to the world of Hercule Poirot was certainly entertained!

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“If you tell me who killed the guy, I’ll reveal my secrets to having a perfect mustache.”

What I can at least tell those who are looking at this not as a mystery in and of itself (those who know how it ends) but as an adaptation, I do believe this to be a rather well executed interpretation of that story at least as far as its technical acumen.  It’s not PERFECT by any stretch as even the most basic of action scenes (which admittedly are few and far between) are rather poorly shot which is somewhat of a surprise given Branagh’s previous filmography, but there’s just enough going on with the overall cinematic style to make the film stand out.  The setting itself is a big reason for that as the titular express is a perfect setting to tell this kind of mystery which I can only assume was one of the reason the original book was so successful.  The film makes great use of its environmental limitations while also immersing you in the unique sights and sounds that can only come from being set in a train; all of which makes for a claustrophobic and intense tone while also being fun and extravagant with the meticulously detailed and opulent passenger cars.  Even if you know everything about the book going into it, Branagh still makes it fun to look at and crafts an environment that is perfect for our star detective to do his thing.

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Is he looking for clues up there or did he just need to find a place to squeeze in a bit of cardio?

Speaking of the detective, I immediately took to Kenneth Branagh performance in this as the famed Detective Poirot, and while it’s obviously worth pointing out that this is my first time exposed to this character, I did end up relating to him immediately (imbalance is a VERY distressing thing) which only furthered my investment into this story.  As much as I do love me some Doctor House or Cumberbatch Sherlock, I have to admit that the fun loving and idiosyncratic Poirot is a refreshing alternative to the bitter and sarcastic version of a GREAT DETECTIVE that has become the norm recently and it puts me more in mind of Case Closed than anything else which is one of my favorite shows of all time; though I doubt the comparisons are purely that coincidental as Christie does get named dropped a few times throughout the series.  There’s a certain innocence to it all (despite the dude getting stabbed to death) that makes it stand in stark contrast to the more noir and hardboiled style of detective story that gets made nowadays, and for once the main detective is not merely TOLERATED, but actually has… you know… friends and stuff.  He’s not some recluse who can only function when he’s got a mystery to solve and he doesn’t try to push everyone in his life away; rather he’s a genuinely likable person who certainly enjoys his privacy (always trying to find time to read his Dickens book) but doesn’t lord his superior knowledge over people and is GENUINELY nice to others.  In a world where one of the most popular fictional characters right now is an abusive nihilistic scientist who treats his genius like a cudgel to destroy his family, it might be worth having someone around who can be EMOTIONALLY intelligent while also being a master at deductive reasoning.

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“Wubba Lubba Dub Dub, indeed…”

Now that’s not to take anything away from the rest of the cast who do a fantastic job with the material their given, even if they’re not quite up to par with Branagh’s Poirot.  Josh Gad is certainly a standout as a delightfully scummy in this as a straight up alcoholic with a mean streak only tempered by his utter cowardice, and while Daisy Ridley doesn’t get much at all to do here, she’s more than capable in the scenes that she’s expected to carry.  However, outside of Branagh, there’s not a single actor that can command the screen and makes the most out of every moment they’re in this the way that Michelle Pfeiffer does who is more charming and engrossing than she’s been in a long time.  There’s not really a weak link in here as far as performances go, but there are some actors that feel woefully underutilized like Willem Dafoe who only gets about two prominent scenes and Judi Dench who’s stuck with one.  It’s pretty much the nature of an ensemble cast that a few of them won’t get the screen time they deserve, but the slight imbalance is not enough to harm the movie in any significant way.  They DO manage to keep it brief in a good way with Johnny Depp at least who’s fine in the role he’s given but isn’t around long enough to make things too uncomfortable like he’ll certainly end up doing in the next Fantastic Beasts movie.  If you are someone who cannot stand the sight of the guy at this point I’ll understand if you want to skip this entirely, but if it’s any consolation he’s really only in the film for about twenty minute and then gets stabbed to death, so there’s that at least.

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I’m guessing it was either Catwoman or The Green Goblin.  Rey gets a pass but I’m keeping my eye on you, Olaf!!

In regards to the plot itself which includes the mystery that most people already know the ending to (though I won’t spoil it here), it’s MOSTLY solid.  There’s are a few bits in here that don’t make a whole lot of sense (someone fires a gun at one point yet they aren’t locked up or restrained in any significant manner afterwards) and I think there are some clues as to Poirot’s previous adventures that went right over my head and just felt like they were taking up space.  He has this picture of a woman he keeps pulling out and talking to whenever he gets overly stressed and I can only assume that fans of this character will recognize but it didn’t do much for me even as far as humanizing the detective.  Now the mystery itself and its conclusion… I was a bit skeptical at first once it became clear what the answer was, but after thinking on it I actually kind of love it and find it pretty hilarious.  I can’t say too much about what it is since I wouldn’t want to spoil it for someone who doesn’t already know the answer, but it honestly feels like a deconstructionist take down of other detective novels.  The simplicity of the answer at the end of this makes sense in a way that breaks the fiction that most detective stories build up for themselves and the only comparison that comes to mind is the joke about Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote actually being a serial killer.  In the FICTION of the show, she JUST SO HAPPENS to come across a murder scene every episode which makes sense within the world they set up but feels overly coincidental to be the case in the real world.  That’s KIND of what I took away from the ending of this movie which has a similar THIS WOULD ONLY MAKE SENSE IN A FICTIONAL STORY setup to then pull the rug out from under you to explain how that not only doesn’t make any sense but is the key to solving the mystery.  I mean I know I’m close to a century behind the curb on this, but I found it to be a clever twist that was rather well executed here.  Okay, it’s a BIT melodramatic (especially with the way Poirot reacts when he puts the pieces together) but it’s not enough to undercut the impact that the conclusion has.

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“It was the shifty eyed dog the whole time!  HOW DID I NOT SEE THIS BEFORE!?”

This one really did it for me as it hit a lot of buttons that grabbed my interest and kept it throughout its running time.  Whether it’s my love of Kenneth Branagh whenever he’s in THEATER mode or just my love of similarly structured mysteries like those found in Case Closed, I found the mystery to be intriguing, the main character to be delightful, and everything else around to be MOSTLY well done and complementary to the core selling points of this movie.  I would certainly recommend seeing it in theaters even if it is a bit slower paced and methodical than a lot of blockbusters and thrillers we get around this time of year, but the journey is well worth the asking price.  If nothing else, it CERTAINLY kicks the crap out of The Snowman which is the last European set mystery that takes place during the winter.  Wait a minute… is can’t be a mere coincidence that both movies came out this year, right!?  AH HA!!  MICHAEL FASSBENDER WAS THE KILLER THIS WHOLE TIME!!

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