• Joseph W. Smith III


“Murder on the Orient Express” seems an odd choice for a remake.

Emerging from the mid-seventies golden age that gave us gems like “Chinatown,” “Network” and “The Godfather,” the original film boasted a cast to die for, including Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, John Gielgud and Albert Finney. And thanks to that film’s popularity, many viewers already know the nifty solution to Agatha Christie’s beloved whodunit.

Yet this new version succeeds, with a snappy, literate script and a bevy of fine performances.

Let’s face it, Kenneth Branagh doesn’t make bad movies.

The veteran behind such triumphs as “Thor,” “Cinderella” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” Branagh not only directs this remake of the 1974 thriller; he also plays Christie’s brilliant sleuth Hercule Poirot -- who hopes to get some relaxing down-time aboard the titular train.

No such luck.

Instead, Poirot finds his coaches stuck behind an avalanche as he works to solve an onboard murder for which nearly every fellow-passenger seems to have a motive.

Branagh is excellent, fleshing out the meticulous detective by giving him a deeply human passion for justice and a merry twinkle in his private eye.

Branagh is joined by a broad cast, with Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench and Tom Bateman. Standouts include Josh Gad’s well-rounded assistant to Depp, plus Michelle Pfeiffer, nicely grounding a part that could easily have gone over the top; she is sensational in the climactic scene.

Watch also for a masterful Daisy Ridley, building a character so real and so different from Rey in “The Force Awakens” that as far as I’m concerned, she’ll be star for the next 25 years -- or more.

Yet the real star here is Michael Green’s terrific script. After a delightful prologue introducing us to Poirot, Green deftly juggles numerous storylines while leavening the tale with sharp, believable dialog:

“I can only see the world as it should be,” says Poirot, explaining his ability to pinpoint aberrations and follow them to a resolution. Later he adds:

“Every day, we meet people the world could do without -- yet we do not kill them.”

And: “It takes a fracture of the soul to murder another human being.”

The 1930s production design is snazzy, with postcard-like panoramas of the train wending its way through snowy, moonlit mountains. Normally I don’t care much for digitally generated railroad shots -- but somehow here it works; and in any case, there are enough practical effects to show that they really did use an actual train for many scenes. The final moment is especially gorgeous.

Speaking of which, that brief epilog clearly references another popular Christie title, “Death on the Nile.” The film has performed impressively, and in the time since I first wrote this review in November, the hinted-at sequel has already been confirmed.

But Sir Kenneth -- how about “And Then There Were None,” as well?

“Murder on the Orient Express,”

directed by Kenneth Branagh

Run time: 114 min.

* * * (out of four)

Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements


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