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November 08, 2017

'Murder on the Orient Express' is still a mystery

Today's version of Agatha Christie's 1970s film has a lot to live up to

As the latest big-screen adaptation of "Murder on The Orient Express" hits cineplexes this weekend, it is worth noting that it has some big shoes to fill.

The 1974 film about the famous Agatha Christie creation Hercule Poirot trying to solve a murder on a train led to an Oscar for the legendary Ingrid Bergman for her performance as Greta Ohlsson, a timid Swedish missionary to Africa on a fund-raising trip.

In the 2017 version, Bergman's character is now played by Penelope Cruz, whose name in the film is Pilar Estravados, which sums up nicely everything that is wrong with "Murder on The Orient Express."

Namely, the film seems to bank on supposed star power and a more diverse cast as reasons to justify it's existence.

It fails miserably. Ledlie Odom, Jr. is asked to play a role that was played by Sean Connery, which is unfair to him.

Overall, the star wattage of Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom, Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley pales in comparison to 1974's Bergman, Albert Finney--who was also nominated for an Oscar--Lauren Bacall, Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins and Wendy Hiller.

Virtually none of the modern cast is particularly memorable or convincing in their roles. 

As proof, for half the film, I was convinced Gad's character was being played by Jack Black at his hammiest. I also forgot that Daisy Ridley was in the film until the credits rolled. It's not that she was that immersed in her role, but that her performance is that unremarkable.

In short, hardly anyone's performance is convincing or has any gravitas.

One bright spot is Johnny Depp bringing Edward Ratchett, the shady character who asks--and is denied--Poirot's protection--and soon winds up dead after being stabbed a dozen times. It is so refreshing to see Depp play a character who is not wacky or eccentric. It reminds you he should play dramatic characters more often and is a highlight of the film. So is Kenneth Branagh's direction and portrayal of Poirot.

To be clear, with Branagh as the lead and helming, a tale by Christie as source material and a decent cast, "Murder" it is almost impossible to say the 2017 film is bad.

It's just that it's not particularly good, either. With this tale having been told in a 2001 TV-movie by Alfred Molina and seen as recently as 2010 in A&E's fine "Agatha Christie's Poirot" series, the film would have to be extraordinary to justify going to a theater.

Given the cast, that it doesn't come close is the real mystery.