"Murder on the Orient Express" is paint-by-numbers cinema, rounding up a ready-made classic plot with a company of ludicrously talented actors. It's exactly as good as you figured it would be, taking few risks and coasting along its expected fast track to formidable drama.
Director Kenneth Branagh rounds up an impossibly accomplished cast to adapt Agatha Christie's novel. With Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz and Josh Gad onboard, the production seems almost impossible to derail.
Branagh takes the safe route, sticking with period trappings, mannered speech and shamelessly scenery-chewing performances. The filmmaker latches onto Christie's formidable momentum and taut tension to keep the chamber drama chugging along.
Branagh plays detective Hercule Poirot, a borderline OCD sleuth who is forced out of retirement when one of the eccentric passengers on board meets an unexpected end. With everyone onboard harboring buried grudges, covert connections and hidden agendas, Poirot has his work cut out for him.
"Murder on the Orient Express" is most fascinating when it's at its most intimate, with two characters engaged in mental chess matches fraught with psychological manipulation. Branagh and Depp share the most priceless scene, with both characters attempting to steamroll one another, lightly masking contempt in the trappings of proper pleasantries.
The one drawback of the film is all the potential it leaves untapped. It doesn't quite manage to add up to the considerable sum of its parts. With a fresh vision and daring approach, the movie might have taken flight into all-time great status. On the flipside, greater risk could have been mismanaged into a, well, train wreck.
By taking the safe route, Branagh works the feel of a filmed stage play into a thoroughly solid effort that steams headlong into the night.
RATING: 3 stars out of 4.