It’s been quite a while since I had to use the “well, I guess that technically qualifies as a movie” style of movie review. Well, it’s back. Stephanie and I went to see Murder on the Orient Express tonight and… well, i guess that technically qualifies as a movie. That’s about the highest praise I can give it. It wasn’t offensive or anything. But largely that’s because… well, it wasn’t much of anything. Is that a problem? Well, it’s hard to say.
Before I get into it, I want to point out that I’m not actually an Agatha Christie fan. My wife, Stephanie, is. While I was familiar with the basic concept and knew the twist ending just from living on planet Earth for the last few decades, I’ve never actually read the book and wasn’t familiar with the details. So in a lot of ways this was the reverse of when I drag her to a lot of superhero movies that she couldn’t give two shits about. I think this is worth mentioning because it really shines a light on the way I think when I review a film. When a bad superhero movie comes out (Batman v. Superman, I’m looking in your general direction) and I give it a bad review, I know that inevitably the defense from the comic book fanboys will be “you don’t understand, this is a movie for the fans.” I hate this response. If you’re a fan of the property, the one thing you should want more than anything else is for the movie to be good. It’s not like fans are going to suddenly hate something because it’s a good movie. They’re going to enjoy it no matter what. What you really want is for a movie to introduce non-fans to the property and make them care so that they love the same thing you do. What you don’t want is for the non-fans to watch the movie and say “why would anyone care about this exactly?”
Take the movie Daredevil. People make fun of it now, but they largely loved it when it came out because… well, there wasn’t a lot to choose from. Everyone was just happy to see a superhero on the screen. And unlike other superhero movies of the time, he was even wearing the costume. The thrill of the movie was “hey look. There’s Daredevil! He’s up there on screen, doing Daredevil stuff! Just like in that comic I love. Daredevil! Yay!” The fact that it wasn’t really very good was immaterial. It’s what we had.
Murder on the Orient Express is basically Daredevil. If you’re a lifelong fan Hercule Poirot novels, and you’ve watched the TV series and the 1974 movie, and you’ve always thought to yourself “if only someone would put a real budget behind this and put it on the screen so I can look at a guy being Poirot… well, that’s what you get here. If you wanted it to be GOOD… well…sorry. I mean, it’s not like it’s BAD. That’s something right? It’s just. Not much of anything. The failing of BvS isn’t so much that it is bad. I mean it is. But that isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that there are good superhero movies now. Lots of them. This isn’t 2003 when Daredevil came out. There’s movies with character and plot and reasons to care. So when a movie comes along that is just “well, that’s a guy in a batsuit, alright. And look, he’s punching a guy with an S on his chest. Batman vs. Superman! Yay!” it just seems kind of pointless and annoying and like noise. But at least there’s special effects and loud explosions to distract you with. But we’re living in a superhero renaissance… not a Hercule Poirot one. There just didn’t have to be much going on other than “it exists” to make this the best Hercule Poirot movie in four decades. And… there’s not.
For one thing, there’s a tone problem. The film isn’t sure what kind of movie it wants to be. It starts out very lighthearted. Poirot is finishing up some unrelated case. This is actually nice for a viewer not familiar with the character and story. We learn that Poirot is quirky and eccentric and appears to be suffering from OCD, but uses the meticulousness of his condition as an advantage when solving crimes. This feels like a passion project for Kenneth Branagh (who both stars in and directs the film). This feels like a character Branagh is a fan of and has been waiting his entire life to play. For a good ten minutes, we are somewhat engaged in who he is and how he behaves. Then the story starts… and forgets the tone of the world that has been built over the first ten minutes of the movie. It becomes slow and methodical. It loses its sense of joy. It is as though ten minutes in Branagh said “well, I’ve wanted to be Poirot all my life and now I have… now what?”
The problem here is that the plot of the film largely involves a lot of talking. Part of the intrigue of the story is that Poirot, the detective, is trapped on a train with a thirteen murder suspects. He must solve the crime before the train reaches its destination and the suspense comes from the fact that anyone could be the murderer and anyone could be murdered at any time. However, the flaw in the adaptation is that Poirot is a real detective. He largely solves his crimes by interviewing people and thinking. And since he is stuck on the train, he is very limited in sets that he can visit to do his talking and thinking in. There’s not much visual appeal. Which is a problem… because this is a movie. This is precisely the reason that other screen detectives (for instance, Robert Downey Jr.‘s recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations) have essentially become hardboiled action heroes. They simply need something visual to do. In an attempt to remain relatively faithful to the source material (I assume… again, I haven’t read it) Branagh neglects to do this. Instead he simply moves Poirot’s conversations to the big screen. And to distract the viewer from the fact that nothin is really happening he casts big name actors in all the roles.
For one of them, Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard, this kind of works out. She does her best to chew up whatever sparse scenery is available to her on the screen. But at least she’s something to watch. Everyone else was essentially budget bloat. The film poster proudly proclaims the Academy Award credentials of 6 of the films 9 big name stars(Branagh, Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, and Johnny Depp). Furthermore, while the poster doesn’t mention it, Leslie Odom Jr. has a Tony, Josh Gad has a Tony nomination, a Daisy Ridley is currently the star of Star Wars, the biggest film franchise in history. The all star cast makes it pretty clear where much of the budget went. But it isn’t clear why. They bring very little to the roles. If Ridley and Dench have more than a dozen lines each, I’d be amazed. It is often hard to keep the characters straight, not only because there are so many of them, but because they have very little to do, other than stand around and wait for Poirot to solve the mystery.
And since they’re largely just standing there, there isn’t much reason to care about any of them. Particularly if you know the twist ending (from living on the planet Earth) and know whodunnit, there just isn’t much “to do” while the film progresses. Since it gives up on its humor after the first ten minutes, it’s just hard to stay engaged. It doesn’t feel like there are really enough hints throughout for you to be able to solve the murder.., though it doesn’t matter, because everyone probably knows the secret anyway. At points it almost becomes boring — something that should never happen in any murder mystery.
But it is clearly Poirot. Onscreen. And if that’s what you’re looking for… well, that’s definitely what you’re going to get. Certainly nothing more… but not really anything less either. So this is about the most thumbs in the middle movie I can ever possibly think of. If it had anything visually interesting going on to distract from the monotony of their situation, that might have helped, If there were clues to follow or humor throughout or maybe even an explosion… something to grab on to. If any of the big named actors in what are essentially bit parts, had just really gone for it and made an Oscar play that might have really shown through. But instead, it’s just a movie… barely. The only real cinema innovation it really takes advantage of? Well, it’s a talkie. So if you’re not big into Agatha Christie this is probably not for you… But maybe this is just a movie……… “for the fans”
And somehow I have to sit though a Justice League movie next week.
★★½☆☆ (2.5 out of 5 stars)