Movie review: 'Murder on the Orient Express'

Brad Keefe

The latest big-screen adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1934 mystery novel, “Murder on the Orient Express,” is a textbook case of a film project that looks great on paper.

The source material calls for an ensemble, and you have both a director who is adept at wrangling a large cast, and a great collection of actors.

Oh, and it's also November, the beginning of the time of year when we get releases that expect to get some award attention.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly where Kenneth Branagh's “Orient Express” goes wrong. It never derails outright, and it's even suitably good. It just clearly should have been a bit more than that.

Branagh directs and plays the lead role of private detective Hercule Poirot. After an introductory display of his deductive magic, Hercule boards the Orient Express, a luxury train filled with luxurious people.

Spoiler alert: There's a murder ... ON the Orient Express!

With 13 characters on board, Hercule has a wide array of suspects, and he must solve the murder in the closed confines of a train stranded on a snowed-in mountainside.

Branagh strikes a more playful tone early on, before we get into a more old-school whodunit, although there are moments of levity throughout. The result is a passable murder-mystery that gets the job done but is as forgettable as a beach read.

Then let's just list some of the highlights of the cast: Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom, Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley. Whew! That's four Academy Award winners and some other up-and-coming names.

Of course, the problem with an ensemble is developing all the characters, and, in this case, many fine actors are left with little to work with. Depp gets a case of the mugs, and it would have been nice to get more of Ridley away from “Star Wars.”

One standout is Pfeiffer, who also was a scene-stealer in “Mother.” It's great to see a resurgence in her career.

Branagh's Hercule has the most screentime, and he's a great fit and was right not to cast someone else. “Orient Express” makes for solid Sunday matinee fare. It just could have been a contender.

“Murder on the Orient Express”

Opens Thursday

2 stars out of 5