PLOT A world-famous detective tracks down a killer on a snowbound train.
CAST Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley
RATED PG-13 (brief violence)
BOTTOM LINE A serviceable revival of Agatha Christie’s oft-adapted novel.
Of the roughly two dozen films adapted from Agatha Christie’s novels during her lifetime, the 1974 version of “Murder on the Orient Express” is one of the few that met with her grudging approval. Directed by the great Sidney Lumet and featuring a slew of stars — from Lauren Bacall to Ingrid Bergman — the movie became a critical and commercial hit, earning $35 million. But Christie had one major complaint: The trademark mustache of Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective played by Albert Finney, was too small.
That isn’t an issue in the new version. The director of “Murder on the Orient Express,” Kenneth Branagh, cast himself as Poirot but gives the starring role to his own facial hair. Extending beyond his earlobes and thick as a snow leopard’s pelt, this is one massive ’stache. At times, it almost seems sarcastic.
The whole movie is a bit like Poirot’s mustache: mildly amusing but not fully convincing. “Murder on the Orient Express” feels like several movies trapped in one: a pleasant romp, a fond spoof and a serious homage to a bygone genre, the whodunit. If the mix of tones never quite jells, though, the movie is mostly entertaining, with a couple of sparkling moments from the ensemble cast.
The story, essentially unchanged by screenwriter Michael Green, remains irresistible: In the 1930s, the passengers on a train between Istanbul and Calais discover that one among them has been murdered. Luckily, the dead man is Johnny Depp’s latest cartoon creation, a gangster named Rachett; had he stayed alive, he might have sunk the film. Among the baker’s dozen of suspects are Rachett’s accountant, McQueen (a stagy Josh Gad); a missionary named Pilar (Penélope Cruz); the cranky Princess Dragomiroff (a too-brief Judi Dench); and an interracial couple played by Leslie Odom Jr. and a very charming Daisy Ridley. Brightening every train car she enters is Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard, a brassy American widow.
Branagh mostly plays Poirot as the archetypal master sleuth whose quirks can be irritating (he insists on telling men to straighten their ties) but whose genius is awe-inspiring. Oddly, though, Branagh also gives Poirot a brooding, world-weary streak, as if revisiting his own “Hamlet.” It might have worked, too, if not for that mustache.
With the new version of “Murder on the Orient Express” opening, here are four more train movies that let you “express” yourself.
SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) Marlene Dietrich is Shanghai Lily in Josef von Sternberg’s best-picture Oscar nominee about a beautiful woman living by her wits in a civil-war-drenched China, riding on an intrigue-packed train.
VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (1965) Downed U.S. pilot Col. Joseph Ryan, one of Frank Sinatra’s best roles, leads fellow World War II POWs to freedom aboard a hijacked German train — actually filmed on location, speeding along tracks through Italy.
AVALANCHE EXPRESS (1979) The same director, Mark Robson, died shortly after completing production on his second “Express” film, a Cold War thriller starring spy Lee Marvin, defecting Russian general Robert Shaw (in his last role) and a train headed toward a lot of snow.
POLAR EXPRESS (2004) All aboard with a CGI motion-capture Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis’ children’s film about a locomotive bound for Santa and the North Pole.
— FRANK LOVECE