By Noah Gittell

To remake or not to remake? That is the question applied by the big movie studios in this era of creative bankruptcy to nearly every film that once captured the audience’s imagination. It’s easy to see the appeal, but “Murder on the Orient Express” makes for a bewildering case. The 1974 version, adapted from the famous Agatha Christie novel, was an enormous hit for director Sidney Lumet, but mysteries are out of vogue these days, and younger audiences are unlikely to turn up for a big-budget movie that features no superheroes in capes or short skirts.

It doesn’t help when the remake feels as acutely unnecessary as this one. It’s not that this “Murder on the Orient Express,” helmed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, is bad exactly. It simply never justifies its existence. The odd mishmash of tones – zany comedy one minute, maudlin melodrama the next – indicate Branagh never quite understands the story he is telling, or more importantly, why it needed to be told at all.

Plot-wise, the film hits beats familiar to fans of the book or original film. Hercule Poirot, a brilliant and eccentric detective with an oversized moustache, has just finished a case in Turkey, when he is called to London. He scores a cabin on the eponymous train, the height of luxury travel in the 1930s, at the last minute. He meets the other 11 passengers, and when one of them, a shady businessman named Ratchett (Johnny Depp), turns up dead, Poirot sets about solving the case before they arrive at their next destination.

With such a large cast and so little time, only a few actors are able to make much of an impression. Depp, playing off of his increasingly notorious reputation off-screen, somehow seems both menacing and impotent as the hustling crook who meets his bitter fate while asleep in his room. As a widow on the hunt for a new husband, Thankfully, Michelle Pfeiffer is also onboard, offering a nervous, flirtatious energy that becomes enriched with layers as the plot twists in her direction. Even Josh Gad, who has relied on an irritating comic broadness in films like “Love and Other Drugs” and, yes, “Frozen”, achieves a sweet melancholy as Ratchet’s alcoholic assistant.

Then there is the lead and most important role. Historically, Poirot is a refined character, refined but not aristocratic, cultured but possessing a deep, violent anger at the injustices of the world. The script by Michael Green gets the broad strokes right but never fully commits to this darkness. Instead, he gives Poirot a few lovable quirks. The detective has a mild case of OCD, constantly asking people to straighten their ties or complaining that the eggs he has ordered for breakfast are not precisely the same size. Similarly, the film gives him a shallow backstory, alluding to the traumatic death of a former lover but never fleshing out how this informed his character.

Branagh the actor makes up for these script deficiencies, imbuing the heroic detective with a sense of Shakespearean tragedy. Poirot can contort himself to fit any situation but never loses sight of his overriding sense of purpose. Hidden behind an absurdly long moustache, Branagh uses his piercing blue eyes to great effect, showing us the inner processes and the icy walls of a unique genius.

As director, however, he does not fare as well. He pulls off a few neat camera tricks – a dolly shot following Poirot as he boards the train is a standout –but the tone oscillates without reason. Scenes of emotional revelation are followed by action sequences. A last-minute decision by Poirot to test the villainy of his suspect(s) comes out of nowhere. This is what happens when a filmmaker doesn’t quite have a handle on the meaning of his work, or why he is wrestling it into existence.

None of which would be a problem if the plot’s central mystery could hold the viewer’s interest. Viewers new to the story have no reason to care, and those – like me – who know and loved the 1974 film will get bored rather quickly. We know how this story ends (or at least, we think we do), and most of the film is spent hoping that Poirot will hurry up and put the pieces together. In a mystery, something has gone very amiss when the audience is impatiently waiting for the brilliant detective to figure things out.

My Rating: Put it on your Queue

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