These days, private detective Hercule Poirot may not sound like a particularly noteworthy character. He's a brilliant detective with quirks in a pop culture world full of brilliant detectives with quirks, from Monk to The Mentalist to House to countless interpretations of Sherlock Holmes. This new film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express proves, though, that Agatha Christie's classic character can still hold his own, and he does it by leaning on the traits that made him popular in the first place.
As in Christie's original novel of the same name, Poirot finds himself on a luxury train that becomes the scene of a mysterious murder. A passenger has been stabbed to death in the middle of the night and an avalanche has derailed the train, trapping 13 strangers together as Poirot rushes to identify the murderer before they get away with their crime.
A mystery with so many suspects demands a cast that can make each one appear innocent or guilty at any given moment, and the all-star ensemble assembled here is up to the task. Anchored by Kenneth Branagh (who also directed the film) as Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express also features acclaimed actors including Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr.
The flaw with having so many worthwhile characters, however, is that there is a lot of ground to cover in a short time. The movie moves briskly, daring you to keep up with every character revelation as connections, motives, alibis and pieces of evidence are established. It all works out in the end, but you might spend a fair amount of the movie saying, "Wait, which character is Mary, again?"
Some of the suspects have been modified from their novel counterparts, but the essence of the characters remains intact. Readers of the novel won't be surprised by the Orient Express' final destination, but there are some twists and turns on the way there.
The film wisely doesn't strain itself too hard to feel "modern." It maintains the 1930s setting, but more importantly, doesn't turn Poirot into an action hero. There are no boxing matches, no epic chase scenes. Poirot is merely an aging man who happens to be very smart, relying on his "little grey cells" alone to get himself out of sticky situations.
Sure, he's got eccentricities. If he steps in manure with one shoe, he feels the need to step it in with the other shoe as well, to maintain balance. He's a bit abrasive and standoffish ("I am at my happiest alone," he tells another character at one point), but he is also guided by a strong moral compass rather than self-serving interests. In a way, those old-fashioned qualities make him a more appealing protagonist than he might have been a decade ago.
Modern touches do shine, though, in the cinematography. It flirts with overusing long, close-quarters one-shots that follow characters through the train, but their inclusion is effective at making a relatively small space feel dynamic.
Murder on the Orient Express isn't particularly mind-blowing, but it serves as good crime story comfort food -- a whodunit that's easy to settle in with for a couple of hours. The movie hints at (and lays some groundwork for) more Poirot adventures, and if Branagh can keep up his act, sequels would be welcome.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (B)
PG-13 (for violence and thematic elements). 114 minutes. In wide release.