'Murder on the Orient Express' movie review: Feel free to miss this train

'Murder on the Orient Express' movie review: Feel free to miss this train

The whodunnit drama "Murder on the Orient Express" (opening in theaters Nov. 10) had everything going on its favor - a massive, all-star cast, a sprawling production budget and an Academy Award nominated director at the helm of a beloved literary property. Yet, the only real mystery is how this drama devolved into something so unsatisfying. 

In short: World renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) must solve the murder of a businessman (Johnny Depp) - a case with few leads and where everyone is a suspect. Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer also star.

Disclaimer - this review is written only with cursory familiarity with Agatha Christie's famous detective character Hercule Poirot. Furthermore, this review doesn't consider other adaptations of this novel - as this reviewer has not seen any of them. This particular critique only takes this 2017 adaptation at face value and judges it on its merits alone. No spoilers. 

Now with that out of the way - "Murder on the Orient Express" is a contrived and self-important waste of time. Even by the usual plot-driven standards of most mystery flicks "Orient Express" is a frustrating and artificial chore. The story's intertwined and interconnected plot twists range from forced to way-too-convenient. Story elements that may very well work in a carefully crafted novel come off as ridiculous or lazy in this film adaptation. The entirety of this movie is a gratuitous exercise in "look at how complicated we can make the plot while only marginally advancing the plot or developing the characters." Even if one can excuse some convenient plot elements (which make sense for story purposes later on), the film still relies on a mountain of irritating convenient plot coincidences just to keep the movie chugging along. Need a reason to keep all the characters on the train - here's a massive avalanche triggered by a random bolt of lightning! When is the best time for the train to lurch forward suddenly - when a character is about to fire a handgun of course!

"Orient Express" underwhelms because Poirot himself is just a plot tool as well - he's an exposition device with a funny mustache. He sweeps up clues and makes note of character peculiarities -- none of which is out of place in the mystery genre. The problem here is every clue is out-of-reach for the audience - the most engaging mysteries lay the clues and make it possible for particularly astute audience members to solve the puzzle. But unless you're familiar with the nuanced linguistic differences in the pronunciations European cities or you're intimately familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, then this mystery is unsolvable.

When Poirot finally figures out who killed the businessman - the resolution itself is ridiculous. This smug film is so satisfied with its tangled web of relationships and motives that it misses the outright absurdity of the film's climax. Of all the possible conclusions to this mystery there were, "Orient Express" somehow finds the least fulfilling one -- a cop out that undermines the house of cards that is this film.

And - just because this film cannot stop shooting itself in the foot - even its ultimate resolution is a misfire. In a desperate, last minute bid for something resembling coherence, "Orient Express" tries to make the film's ending about Poirot. This is a problem because nothing leading up to the resolution lays the foundation for any sort of character arch for Poirot.

Branagh's performance works because this film's Poirot is an eccentric but elementally brilliant character - he's given virtually no character background other than: he's brilliant, he's OCD and he pines for a woman named Katherine. The only part of "Orient Express" that unquestionably works is this straightforward characterization of the protagonist -- but the film's conclusion lamely tries to depict how the conclusion fundamentally affects Poirot. The conclusion rattles him to his core ... except this film never establishes Poirot as having any sort of character starting point. The film would have been better off leaving Poirot an elementally simple character and revealing how the resolution deeply affects all the other characters - at least their personal stakes were explored to some extent.

The supporting cast is made of several Academy Award nominees and some of today's rising stars - and they're all wasted in this nonsense. Every character is a caricature - the nun cannot utter one line of dialogue without going full fire and brimstone. The car salesman is a fast talker. The divorcee is a flirty single woman. Even when the story tries to give them some dimension, the film does them no service because it gives them nothing new to do with their new found depth. Everyone just stands around as a placeholder until Poirot solves the crime.

To its credit, the film does keep the audience guessing -- which is basically the only thing this mystery had to do. "Orient Express" does the bare minimum to avoid the worst possible movie review final score -- but it's worth noting the story only accomplishes this with a gross amount of sleight of hand. While Branagh's turn as the iconic detective is entertaining, it's difficult to reconcile the desire to want to see more of this character solve other crimes with the dread of wondering 'are the other Poirot stories this frustrating?'

Final verdict: "Orient Express" is a spectacle of manipulation and grandiosity. The impressive production value and its A-list ensemble cast are wasted on a movie that bends over backwards in a sad, hollow bid to impress with its visuals and convoluted plot.

Score: 2/5

"Murder on the Orient Express" has a running time of 114 minutes and is rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.

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