Chuck Koplinski: Full steam ahead for 'Orient Express' remake

Chuck Koplinski: Full steam ahead for 'Orient Express' remake

With actor David Suchet's portrayal of Agatha Christie's arrogant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot considered the gold standard where the character is concerned, is it foolhardy for Kenneth Branagh to take on the role as well as direct a new version of his most famous case?

Yes and no. While Branagh will probably not erase Suchet's vision of the character from the minds of purists, he certainly is an actor, as well as a director, who's always looking for a challenge. Adapting "Murder on the Orient Express" is certainly that, as the murder and the whodunit that follows is confined to a single snowbound location that, from a filmmaker's point of view, offers nothing but challenges in keeping narrative claustrophobia and tedium at bay.

Yet Branagh has a trick or two up his sleeve as he and screenwriter Michael Green manage to open the story up a bit and add some much-needed humor to the story in just the right spots. Of course, Branagh wisely stacks the deck in his favor by assembling a cast of screen veterans and Oscar winners that bring life to the classic tale as the director manages to coordinate the whole thing so that none of them manage to step on the others' toes.

For those unfamiliar with Christie's 1934 novel, Poirot finds himself on the titular train traveling to London with an assortment of strangers who all are eager to get to their destination. However, fate is a cruel mistress, and the train winds up snowbound in the mountains after an ill-timed avalanche. As if this wasn't enough excitement, American art dealer Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is found murdered in his compartment. Of course, the killer must be on board, and as the group is going nowhere fast, Poirot decides to employ his little gray cells to try to crack the case.

There's no shortage of suspects or great performers to bring them to life. Before his character is dispatched, Depp reminds us what an effective actor he can be when given the right part, while Michelle Pfeiffer as desperate flirt Caroline Hubbard gives the best performance of her career. Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff glowers as only she can, Daisy Ridley shows fire and spunk as the mysterious Mary Debenham and Derek Jacobi brings a stately manner to proceedings as the troubled butler Edward Masterman. Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe and Penelope Cruz are also on board, each shining in the far-too-few moments they are accorded.

Taking a cue from Poirot's impressive moustache, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukas bathes the film in icy blues, grays and silvers, producing a gorgeous look that perfectly complements the sumptuous production design. They make being stranded in the mountains appear to be not such a bad turn of events.

Purists may object to some of the additions Green brings to the table, with the most egregious changes occurring during the third act. Yet most of them feel true to the nature of the story and the characters and help Branagh in preventing this from becoming a staid and static affair.

As for the director, his turn as the seminal detective is distinctly different from his predecessors, as there is a self-effacing humor about him relating to his peculiar behavior. This is established early on when we see him fret over his breakfast of two hard-boiled eggs before going out to wrap up a case concocted expressly to get the movie off to a grand start. The actor is fully committed here and is obviously having fun exploring Poirot's foibles as well as the change that comes over him thanks to this case.

While some will see this is as a disposable piece of mystery entertainment, the final coda proves timely and powerfully reminds us of the ripple effect a murder can have on those who have been left behind to witness its effects. As much as he would like it to, the world does not make sense, and Poirot is forced to accept this and find a way to live in it, something we are all forced to do on a far too regular basis in today's world.

'Murder on the Orient Express' (★★★½ out of four)

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr. and Derek Jacobi.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; produced by Mark Gordon, Judy Hofflund, Simon Kinberg, Ridley Scott and Branagh; screenplay by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie.

A 20th Century-Fox release. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 (violence and thematic elements). At AMC Champaign 13, AMC Danville Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

Realistic approach benefits"The Florida Project" (★★★½ out of four). Set over one summer, the film follows precocious 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) as she courts mischief and adventure with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother (Valeria Cotto), all while living in the shadows of Walt Disney World near Orlando.

Touching and timely, the movie benefits from director Sean Baker's realistic approach and a subtle but powerful turn from Willem Dafoe as a hotel manager who helps Moonee when he can, though he knows his efforts will ultimately prove futile.

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