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'Murder on the Orient Express' goes off track

"Murder on the Orient Express" is dated, in a sense that goes beyond its 1934 setting and director/star Kenneth Branagh's exaggerated facial hair.

The film, whose title is pretty self-explanatory, starts as a zany, borderline slapstick comedy. It gradually morphs into drama once the titular crime is committed, but never fully embraces either of these genres. It's not a comedy, but it's not quite a sleek period piece, either. Even if that's the point, as a whole it just feels preachy, stilted and almost silly.

This is the second big-screen adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel by the same name. The first premiered in 1974, featuring a cast of equally staggering collective fame -- Albert Finney investigated the likes of Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery in the case of Richard Widmark's murder.

Nothing much appears to have changed with Branagh's take, except for the occasional, sweeping CGI shot to try to justify its being remade this year. Its star power is comparable to "Valentine's Day," "Justice League" or what I imagine "High School Musical 4" would be like; the titular train's passengers include a demure governess played by Daisy Ridley, a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr), a crucifix-clutching nurse (Penelope Cruz), a German professor (Willem Dafoe) and a shady accountant (Josh Gad).

Then, of course, Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, a distinctly mustached Belgian who just wants some time off from being the self proclaimed brightest detective in the world. He accepts what's supposed to be a stress-free trip on the Orient Express, a train from Istanbul to France on which he can relax, eat perfectly proportioned eggs and cackle at Dickens novels until his next case.

Then an avalanche derails the train, and someone -- Johnny Depp's Ratchett, a slimy American art dealer -- is stabbed to death one night while waiting to be rescued and continue traveling West. Poirot is all but forced to nail down the perpetrator, a seemingly elementary task for the world renowned investigator. Spoiler alert: it's not, despite the fact that the culprit must, by default, be one of the other few passengers.

"Murder on the Orient Express'" issue is not its cast, though a couple players are straight-up cartoonish. It's certainly not Branagh, who could probably carry a franchise based on his delightfully eccentric Poirot, or Bouc (Tom Bateman), Orient Express director and endearing playboy-turned-sidekick.

My problem with this film is the nature of the story itself, which takes its time setting up backstories that never pay off as well as ones that do (i.e. Poirot pining over a former lover who has no effect whatsoever on the plot), and can't quite settle on a consistent pace. It starts off at a sprint, then slows while we're bombarded with characters, their backstories and the twisty, overarching murder scheme. There are intermittent moments of violence and suspense, but not as much as one would expect from what should be a high-stakes crime thriller.

Then there's the climax, which is reminiscent of a "Transformers" movie ending. It is 20 minutes too long, never over when you think it is, and abruptly turns a twisted tale of violent crime into a study on the contradictions of human nature. The final result (without giving too much away) is more moralizing than satisfying, as the resolution of a murder mystery should be.

Of the two classics Branagh has remade in the past few years, I liked "Cinderella" better.

2.5/5 stars

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