Cinema Knife Fight Presents:
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)
By Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: a train travelling through snowy countryside. Inside a dinner car sit various wealthy characters dressed in 1930s period piece garb. The door opens and MICHAEL ARRUDA & L.L. SOARES enter.)
WOMAN PASSENGER: Thank God! Are you here to solve the murder?
MICHAEL ARRUDA: No. We are here to review a movie. For I am the world’s greatest movie critic.
L.L. SOARES (slaps MA across the face with a loose glove, knocking him over.): Baloney! I am the world’s greatest movie critic. (Points to MA) Pay no attention to anything that man says.
MA (getting back up and dusting himself off): That is untrue.
LS: Are you accusing me of lying? (Pulls out a gun and points it at MA. The passengers gasp.)
MA (pulls out a bigger gun and points it at LS): Yes.
MALE PASSENGER: Gentlemen, please! We’ve already had one murder committed on this train! We don’t need another! Put down your guns.
MA(to LS): You heard the man. Put down your gun.
LS (smiles): After you.
MA: I’ll settle for the same time.
(They cautiously put down their guns, and as soon as they do, LS brandishes a knife, and MA wields a larger knife.)
WOMAN PASSENGER: Stop this foolishness already!
MA: Sorry, ma’am. We’re Cinema Knife Fighters. It’s what we do.
WOMAN PASSENGER: Did you just call me, ma’am? (She lifts a machete.)
MA: Okay, okay! No need to get carried away.
LS: A woman after my own heart. Maybe we can get a drink afterwards and compare weapons.
WOMAN PASSENGER: Maybe not.
MA: Maybe we can review today’s movie. How about that?
(The passengers in the car applaud politely.)
LS: Great idea. (to MA) You go first.
MA: Okay. So, today we’re reviewing MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, a film which takes place on a train much like this one.
Now, I consider myself a Kenneth Branagh fan.
LS: Yeah, so?
MA: I have absolutely loved every Shakespeare play he has brought to the big screen, from his masterful debut with HENRY V (1989) to his wonderfully witty MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993). But his non-Shakespeare films haven’t been as successful, and I’ve never been exactly sure why. His MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994) didn’t work, and his THOR (2011) was just an okay Marvel superhero movie.
LS: Yeah, his work has been pretty uneven. Your point?
MA: Branagh both directs and stars in today’s movie, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017), which is based on the novel by Agatha Christie. It’s also a remake of the 1974 film of the same name, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as detective Hercule Poirot. That one featured an all-star cast of train passengers, including the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, and Sean Connery, to name just a few.
In this new 2017 version, Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, and he too has assembled an all-star cast of passengers, which for me, is the best part of this movie. The cast is superb.
LS: All true.
MA: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS opens in the Middle East in the early 1930s, where famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is busy solving yet another impossible crime. His job done, he climbs aboard a train for some rest and relaxation, but things don’t go as planned when there is a murder committed on board, and suddenly Poirot finds himself once again trying to solve a complicated mystery.
And this is a mystery, so the less said about the plot the better.
LS: You can at least mention that the victim is a disagreeable fellow named Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who you don’t feel much sympathy for. He’s a rather weasely gent, with the mannerisms of a thug. The question is, who killed him and why. Poirot, being the self-proclaimed “Greatest Detective in the World,” takes a break from his holiday to solve the crime and name the perpetrator.
(There is a commotion, and a group of laughing people enter the train car, consisting of SHERLOCK HOLMES, smoking a pipe, Edgar Allan Poe’s C. AUGUSTE DUPIN, Georges Simenon’s JULES MAIGRET, August Derleth’s SOLAR PONS, and Agatha Christie’s MISS MARPLE)
HOLMES: What do we have here? It looks like a gathering of suspects for a crime!
DUPIN: That it does, mon ami. Perhaps they are in need of a detective.
PONS: Well, we can certainly accommodate them.
MARPLE: Very true.
WOMAN PASSENGER: It’s already under control. A Mssr. Hercule Poirot is already on the case.
HOLMES: That charlatan.
MARPLE: Well, if you prefer a second-tier detective, I suppose he’s good.
LS: Excuse me, but we’re actually trying to review a movie here.
MA: Yes, we’re not in need of detective work at the moment.
PONS: But Poirot was mentioned.
MA: He’s indisposed at the moment. But we have everything under control.
HOLMES: Very well. If you prefer not to use the finest minds in detective work, that is your perogative.
(They all burst out laughing and move on to another car)
DUPIN: Poirot, can you believe it!
HOLMES: That Belgian nitwit.
MA: As I said before we were so rudely interrupted, the best part about MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is its cast, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but for the film itself, it’s a mixed bag. The biggest knock against this movie is it just never reached out and grabbed me. There is never a defining moment in the film where I felt, okay, this is where it gets going. It just moves along at a steady pace with no sense of urgency or dramatic build-up. It’s all rather listless.
LS: Well, I wouldn’t go that far. I found some of it suspenseful and thought there was a dramatic build-up to the proceedings. But I have to agree with you, while I found the movie very well done and enjoyable in an old-fashioned murder mystery way—there are moments when the movie feels like it’s from another time—ultimately I never felt like it really mattered. There’s just something about it that failed to satisfy me as a viewer. But go on.
MA: It certainly looks good. The shots of the train travelling through the snowy mountains are picturesque, and the costumes and set design are impressive. But director Branagh seems satisfied to film a period piece drama without giving much emphasis to the suspenseful side of things. This film just never gets going.
LS: It does look great, doesn’t it? A great big shout out to cinematographer Haris Zambarlokous, perhaps the most valuable player in this particular production. His camera’s eye is impeccable.
MA: But the cast is fun, starting with Branagh himself as Hercule Poirot. Branagh seems to be having a good time with the role, and he’s convincing as the meticulous borderline-OCD Poirot. And his full mustache is so noticeable, it’s nearly a character in itself.
LS: It even has its own covering when he sleeps! But yes, I found Branagh’s Poirot to be a delight. His confidence spills over into pompous-assness, but he’s rather earned it. He does deliver the goods, after all. I thought Branagh was kind of perfect in the role, and he stands out in a crowd of shining stars.
MA: Johnny Depp makes for an excellent gangster-type, and his was one of my favorite performances in this film. I’ve grown tired of some of Depp’s off-the-wall acting roles of late, and it was fun to see him actually play a character. He does a fine job, and I wish he would do this more often, play someone who actually seems like a real person.
LS: The makeup job, with his scars and worn face, added to the chracter’s grittiness. But I agree, it’s one of Depp’s better performances lately. He doesn’t go over the top or act silly. He’s a coarse, brutal, man, and it shows. I thought Depp’s Ratchett was very effective here.
MA: I also really enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer, and although she wasn’t as memorable as she was in MOTHER (2017) earlier this year, she’s still very good. We haven’t seen a whole lot of Pfeiffer in recent years, and I hope this changes, because she remains a strong talent whose presence has been missed in the movies of late.
LS: Pfeiffer is terrific, and, aside from Branagh’s Poirot, she was probably my favorite character here. You’re right, she seemed to disappear for a while, and it’s like she’s returned with a vengeance, with two strong roles here and in MOTHER, I hope there’s a lot more in the pipeline. I definitely want to see more of her. She just makes the screen sizzle.
MA: Likewise, Josh Gad was particularly effective as Hector MacQueen, the right-hand man and attorney for Depp’s Edward Ratchett. While Gad was more memorable as LeFou in the recent live-action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), he’s still pretty darn good here.
LS: I thought he was good, but then the entire cast is equally good, or better.
MA: Also in the cast are Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe. Now, all of these folks are fun to watch, but none of them do a whole lot. Like the film as a whole, no one really has any signature moments.
LS: I thought they were all quite good, and I thought they all had strong moments. Daisy Ridley stands out for me as Miss Mary Debenham, I loved all her scenes here, especially her ones with Poirot. She was so absorbed in her role that I almost didn’t recognize her at first. I also really liked Leslie Odom as Dr. Arbuthnot, who gives a muscular performance throughout. This is a flashy cast, but it’s also a very talented one, and even the lesser roles were very well done.
(The door to the train car opens again, and another group enters, made up of Raymond Chandler’s PHILIP MARLOWE, Dashiell Hammett’s SAM SPADE, John D. MacDonald’s TRAVIS MCGEE, and Mickey Spillane’s MIKE HAMMER)
HAMMER: Where can a guy get a damn drink around here.
SPADE: What’s this? Looks like a crime scene.
MCGEE: The two men standing look suspicious to me.
MARLOWE: Well, let’s wrap this up and find the dining car.
MA: There’s nothing to wrap up, except this movie review.
LS: Yeah, we don’t need no steenkin’ detectives to review a movie.
HAMMER: Why, you! I took a shower today. I’ll knock your block off.
SPADE: Calm down, Hammer. Let’s not make a scene.
MARLOWE: Those two do look guilty of something.
MCGEE: I told you we should have stayed on my houseboat.
LS: Beat it, will ya? We’re almost done here.
HAMMER: Beat it? Why, I’ll…
SPADE: We were just leaving.
MARLOWE: Yeah, we can all use a drink, and there’s no bar here.
MCGEE: Besides, these two wouldn’t even both worth the effort. We’d mop up the floor with them.
HAMMER: True enough!
(They EXIT, singing a drunken song)
LS (looks at MA): You were saying?
MA: Michael Green wrote the screenplay, based on Christie’s novel. It’s a decent screenplay with believable dialogue and interesting characters, but it doesn’t score all that well as a whodunit mystery. There is a murder, and Poirot investigates. This in itself is interesting, but without compelling dialogue and conversations, and without energetic directing, the process of solving the crime somehow all becomes rather mundane and lifeless.
LS: I didn’t find it all that lifeless. I thought it was quite alive. My problem is that, at its core, something just seemed to be missing. Something that would make me truly care about these characters and embrace this movie.
MA: There are some good moments, like when Poirot says he’s reached the age where he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, and he partakes fully in all that he likes and completely ignores what he dislikes. For those of us who have reached a certain age, this line rings true. It’s too bad most of the other dialogue and situations in the film did not ring true.
Green was one of the writers who wrote the screenplay to BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and he also worked on the screenplay to LOGAN (2017). Of these three, the Marvel superhero film LOGAN is clearly Green’s best credit.
Another drawback to this film is if you’ve seen the 1974 movie—it’s hard to forget—this new version doesn’t really offer anything that is new. I’m going to guess that if you haven’t seen the 1974 movie, you might like this version better than I did.
LS: For some reason, I think that a lot of people reading this review haven’t seen the 1974 version.
MA: I found MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to simply be okay. It didn’t wow me, didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, or scratching my head wondering who the murderer was, but it did hold my interest for the most part, in a rather routine, pleasant sort of way, which, for a period piece murder mystery, doesn’t really cut it.
I give it a standard two and a half knives.
LS: Well, I did enjoy it more than you did. I thought it was well-done, and the cast delivered strong performances. But like the final big scene where all is revealed, I felt a kind of disconnect from it all. A failure to truly care, when all was said and done, and I can only blame the screenplay for that. It seems like a delicious-looking pastry, but once you bite into it, the center is rather bland.
Yet, I give it three knives. It’s a good movie, and certainly worth your time if you enjoy a good mystery.
MA: Well, that’s done.
LS: Good. Let’s go find the dining car ourselves. I could use a drink.
MA: That Mike Hammer looked like he was itching for a fight.
LS: So, I could use some exercise as well.
MA: Goodbye everyone! See you next time at Cinema Knife Fight!
© Copyright 2017 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS ~ two and a half knives!
LL Soares gives MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS ~three knives.