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"Murder on the Orient Express" is harmless, which is weird, given the murder

"Murder on the Orient Express" is harmless, which is weird, given the murder

Rating: ***

By the time “Murder on the Orient Express” reaches its climax, it can’t decide what kind of a movie it wants to be. Will it lecture us on the state of humanity, or go full-bore into an exciting recap of the caper at hand? It decides to do neither, which sort of makes sense given the distinct unevenness of the film. 

Listen, FOX knew what it was getting itself into when it put Kenneth Branagh behind the camera. The director of “Thor,” “Cinderella” and “Jack Ryan” (the bad ones, for all three) does not direct convincing films. They far too often fail to inspire much of anything resembling emotion, let alone the kind of tension you’d expect in a film based on an Agatha Christie novel. 

Here’s what you are up against when you buy a ticket to “Murder on the Orient Express.” First, an ensemble cast of characters that you’ll enjoy, but not remember. Second, a mystery that you’ll follow, but won’t get much of a chance to solve yourself. Third, a strong performance from Branagh himself, who does a much better job selling his film in front of the camera than he does behind it. 

The visuals of “Express” are distinct rather than striking. The titular train steams through mountains and plains, yes, but you expect more from a film that’s billed itself on its look through its marketing campaign. It just lacks the sort of pizzazz that might help set it apart from the standard fare churned out by the studio system. With the script tied to a cherished source material, those visuals could have gone a long way to making this film something special.

Instead, it all feels very safe. If you’re familiar with the story, that might sound outrageous. The murder itself, while not explained in great detail until later on in the film, is a bit grisly. It’s no “Jigsaw,” but Christie certainly knew how to turn the lights out on somebody. Yet Branagh doesn't get all that creative with the scene that gets the movie going, or frankly with any scene save the only memorable shot from the first teaser trailer [you know the one]. 

The film devolves into a series of interviews between Branagh’s detective Hercule Poirot and the passengers of the train. These scenes are never dull, but that’s more to the credit of the source material than it is to Branagh’s direction. What makes the novel truly special is that it all builds to something, much like the momentum of a train heading downhill with a full head of steam. “Murder on the Orient Express” never experiences something similar.

Instead, a handful of fine performances never amount to anything greater. Frankly, it seems the studio never wanted this film to become more than what it is. As harmless holiday season fodder, “Murder on the Orient Express” delivers. But given the parts and pieces available, well, I can’t help but think this could have been so much more. 

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