Death on the Nile and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Studios
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Hey, remember when Murder on the Orient Express came out and then the world ended before the sequel come hit theaters? It feels like this thing was pushed back at least half a dozen times before it finally hit theaters, and sure enough, I ended up missing it when it did; catching it on one of the various streaming services it was added to in the last few weeks. I made time for Uncharted and Batman, but I couldn’t make time for this!? Blasphemy, I say! Was I wrong to miss out on this classy and colorful adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel when I had the chance to see it on the big screen, or did I manage to save myself from crushing disappointment and overpriced popcorn? Let’s find out!!
Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is the world’s greatest living detective and owner of one of the best mustaches the world has ever seen! Still, even with so much success behind him, he is not without his troubles, his worries, and his fatigue which prompts him to take a trip to Egypt. Little does he know however that, just like Jessica Fletcher, murder and mischief follow him wherever he goes and he winds up meeting his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) who drags him to a wedding party full of colorful characters and juicy intrigue. The wedding is for Linnet Ridgeway and Simon Doyle (Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer); the former a socialite heiress to a vast fortune and the latter a hunky dude she stole from her best friend Jackie (Emma Mackey). The rest of the wedding party is certainly putting on a show of happiness for the new couple, but each one has an ax to grind as is standard for this kind of story with Jackie herself making an appearance once in a while to really ratchet up the heat. Someone is going to die during this destination wedding, and with Poirot around, there is a good chance that justice will be served! Who at this wedding party will play the part of the victim in this tragedy, and what will be the motive behind that killing!? Will Poirot be able to suss out the murderer before they get desperate and cover their tracks with even more bloodshed!? Seriously, dude. How do you keep that mustache so perfect; ESPECIALLY in this humidity!?
Murder on the Orient Express was one of my favorite movies the year it came out, and while this one doesn’t meet those lofty expectations, it manages to be a solid Whodunit and it’s still fun to witness Branagh’s overtly stylized take on Agatha Christie’s world. With sweeping vistas of Egypt (or at least the blue screen representations of such) and the perfectly manicured hair and makeup despite everyone spending days in blisteringly hot weather while stuck on a boat, it’s not shy about letting the aesthetics and drama drive the narrative which is honestly pretty refreshing to see in a film that is ultimately pretty small in scale. Mysteries, both fictional and true crime, have thrived on the smaller screen since the start of the Streaming Wars which has led to some shows like The Outsider or Only Murders in the building (still need to finish that latter one), but it’s refreshing to see someone willing to make it into something big again. If Branagh wants to just keep making these for another decade with ever-increasing budgets and an assembly line of A-List talent, I wouldn’t be opposed. Heck, as much as I love Marvel, it’d be nice if there was another long-running series in theaters that wasn’t a cinematic universe; especially with what happened to James Bond!
The movie certainly doesn’t make the best case for itself from the outset as the pacing feels languid and the plot is all over the place. We’ve got a flashback followed by a time skip within the first twenty minutes of the movie, and the scene at the reception where we get introduced to all the characters lacks all subtlety to try and cram as much detail as possible. Bouc once again serves as something of a tour guide as he walks Poirot and the audience through the cast of characters with such specific detail that they might as well throw title cards under them like they’re the newest members of the Suicide Squad. The whole first act is noticeably inorganic and stretched out compared to the original as anything that that film did once to set up a clue or a character is done at least three times here, and I was left feeling very unsure of how the movie would turn out. Still, the performances manage to keep things afloat as everyone delivers their lines with the appropriate amount of gusto, and even if the effects look a bit janky at times the overall look and feel were very pleasing to the eye. Even if the movie is taking way too long to get the action, as it were, Branagh at least has an eye for this kind of pulpy spectacle that runs throughout the entire movie.
Fortunately, the movie picks up significantly once the titular death on the Nile occurs and Poirot is forced to go to work. The movie shines when it gets down to the basics of the genre as Poirot (with Bouc inevitably in tow) goes around the ship and interviews the colorful cast of characters as we learn more about their lives and how those are interwoven into the mystery laid out before us. We also get to learn more about Poirot than we did in the last one as details of his past are scattered throughout his investigation, and we even get to see something of a darker side to Poirot than we did in the last one. He’s a lot more deceptive and downright scheming in this film which actually ends up humanizing the character significantly. As is the cliché of the genre, our hyper-vigilant and exceedingly brilliant detective often finds himself above the rest of the people around them; Sherlock Holmes, Jimmy Kudo, Greg House, they all have some sort of wall that keeps them objective and this was very much the case in the first movie for Branagh’s interpretation of Poirot. As is also the case, however, these characters are at their most interesting when they allow themselves to become vulnerable and Poirot is definitely put through the paces here as more and more of his own life is dragged into the drama that is obfuscating the truth he’s trying to uncover. It definitely plays out like a soap opera as much as it does a detective story, especially with a late-game twist that only makes things more difficult for Poirot, but that’s not really a bad thing given the garish and viscerally vibrant tone that the movie is striving for.
Still, the movie at its best still falls short of what we got in the first movie. Most notably, at least for me, was the fact that the mystery just wasn’t that hard to solve. As I said, the clues are much more obvious this time around and as soon as someone said that something was missing, I knew exactly what it would be used for, and then figuring out the Whodunit was very simple. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair though to hold that against this specific movie as everyone is going to come into this with different levels of awareness and experience with the genre. Even if I myself have never read an Agatha Christie book, her mysteries have clearly been the inspiration for writers since then and I know I’ve seen this kind of resolution before which probably had more to do with me being able to solve than any actual analytic skills I may or may not possess. I guess I just got lucky with Murder on the Orient Express as I had no idea of the twist there which made it that much more impactful once we finally got to the end, and I’m sure a lot of people will be lucky in exactly the same way when watching this one. I will also say that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the ending which had a much darker tone than I was expecting. I will absolutely jump on the next one of these if Branagh decides to make it, but the ending did leave me feeling rather deflated and it’s the kind of ending I would have gone for a little bit later in this franchise. We’ve still got some room before we jump the shark on this thing, so maybe let us enjoy it a bit longer before going to this place with it. Still, this is a rather specific personal grievance with it, and much like the resolution to the mystery, I’m sure most people won’t have the same reaction to it that I did.
The biggest sin of this movie is that of Sequelitis; bigger, but not better. Gone is the claustrophobia of a train stuck in the mountains and yet the sweeping vistas and varied locations here doesn’t add much to the mystery itself. Once we finally do get to the mystery it is still very enjoyable and Branagh’s interpretation of these stories is wildly entertaining, but we are going through a lot of the same motions to diminishing returns. I’m definitely on board for more of this franchise even if they do end up driving it into the ground by the time we get to part seven or whatever. I kind of miss the days when a franchise could go on that long with various dips and peaks in quality, but with the advent of cinematic universes it feels like the only place that happens is with horror sequels and Fast and Furious movies. Movies, art, and culture should advance with the times and sometimes that means things are lost. I don’t begrudge Marvel or Warner Bros for their place in the current cinematic landscape, but every once in a while it’s nice to have something a little nostalgic for something other than a comic book, a video game, or a movie that’s not really that old. Still, if Branagh wanted to make this a cross-over with the Green Hornet, I wouldn’t be too opposed to that!