Murder On The Orient Express (2017) Review: An Old Timey Mediocre Murder Mystery

Murder On The Orient Express (2017) Review: An Old Timey Mediocre Murder Mystery

On a certain level, you can’t help but wonder how yet another production of Murder On The Orient Express even exists in 2017. It’s not as if audiences have been begging for more Agatha Christie content in recent years or that there’s suddenly been a massive revival in drawing room mysteries to explain why a studio would want to make a blockbuster version of Christie potboiler. It likely exists as a big expensive Kenneth Branagh ego trip, surrounded by a bunch of famous friends as cover. This thing shouldn’t have made it through the studio system at all, especially as a grand and expensive studio release.

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Johnny Depp in Murder on the Orient Express (2017) – image via 21st Century Fox

Yet on another level, it kind of makes sense. After all, many moons ago the paperback murder mysteries that Christie specialized in had a similar level of cultural cache and success as comic books. Plus, this famous property is also technically part of a larger franchise linked by Christie’s super detective Hercule Poirot. Fox likely looked at the star-packed project and saw the potential for a blockbuster franchise with just enough period prestige to qualify as awards bait and bring in a bundle from older audiences. Sure, there’s a certain desperation involved to stretch Agatha Christie into a potential repeatable Hollywood franchise. But hey! Maybe it could work.

Well, sadly, that seems unlikely when you actually shove Branagh’s big safe gamble into your eyeholes.

That’s not to say that Murder on the Orient Express is a particularly bad movie—because it’s not. It’s fine. It’s perfectly decent and totally watchable. It’s just not particularly exciting despite all the famous faces and blockbuster razzmatazz. There’s very little here that didn’t work better in the 1974 cinematic adaptation of this story and not only will viewers who remember that version likely shrug off the new one, but the creaky old conventions in play are unlikely to bring in many new viewers. Sure, murder and intrigue and famous and big ol’ set pieces all pop up in the flick on the regular, just in ways that feel awkwardly out of date and forced into contemporary mainstream filmmaking styles at once.

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Kenneth Branagh and Daisy Ridley in Murder on the Orient Express (2017) – image via 21st Century Fox

At the centre of it all is Kenneth Branagh, not just over-directing the hell out of the movie so that every camera angle is a canted show off shot filled with unnecessary CGI effects to needlessly expand the scale, but also overacting as a Belgian super detective who is a cross between a less funny Inspector Clouseau and a less exciting Sherlock Holmes. The guy goes big as both director and actor, chewing scenery and whipping the camera around like a Michael Bay oddly obsessed with gentle early 20th century mysteries. It can get a bit overbearing, but it’s also frequently fun. There are few blockbuster specialists in history as unexpected as Branagh and he’s gotten good at what he does. Sure the focus is middlebrow and dated, but that’s to be expected from the Branagh at this point. Mugging overacting isn’t always a given with the guy, but that’s fine. After all, he’s got a hell of a cast to try and overshadow at the centre.

Indeed, there’s virtually no one in this sprawling list of murder suspects who isn’t super famous or at least instantly recognizable. The big name is Johnny Depp, playing a dastardly jerk pretty much destined to be murdered from the second he opens his mouth and spits out a vulgar old timey criminal accent in a distinctly British tale. After Depp’s role is reduced to a bloody corpse, it’s up to the likes of Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, and Michelle Pfeiffer to act super suspicious as Branagh runs through the suspects. Some of the performers are wasted, some are overused, some are awkwardly out of place, and exactly one of them shines brightly. That’d be Michelle Pfeiffer, who does so much with so little you can’t help but hope that she’s primed for a comeback. Other than that, it’s fun to see these famous faces do shifty-eyed acting. But ultimately, this type of mystery writing and characterization has been around for so long that little of it surprises. The story is still well told and lands on a pretty great solution to all the parlour games, but it ultimately feels old fashioned rather than nostalgic. The type of story best suited to BBC broadcast, no many how many famous faces, special effects, and show-off camera moves Branagh lavishes all over the material.

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Judi Dench and Olivia Colman in Murder on the Orient Express (2017) – image via 21st Century Fox

That’s ultimately the biggest problem with Murder On The Orient Express; we’ve been here before and enough times that there’s little need to do it again. Sure, it’s kind of fun to watch a clearly amused Kenneth Branagh get to play with one of the most expensive train sets ever constructed while sharing the stage with a bunch of famous friends. It’s just also a bit rich to think that Branagh and the studio seem so cockily convinced that they can stretch this thing into a blockbuster franchise for grownups. This is a passable bit of light entertainment, but hardly something worthy of a multi-year and film investment. Fortunately, it’s highly unlikely enough people will show up for this stagey bit of faux blockbusterdom to imagine it all leading to an Agatha Christie Cinematic Universe. It’ll likely be a quickly dismissed and forgotten experiment. But hey, at least Branagh and a bunch of his famous friends had a bunch of fun making a movie, right? Sure, it would have been better if audiences had even half as much fun watching the results. But hey, you can’t have everything, right?

Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!

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Pixels (Movie) Review

Pixels (Movie) Review

Well, it’s been another year so it’s time for another lazy Adam Sandler comedy. This time it seemed as though the Sand-man’s new brain fart might actually have some promise. Based on a short film by the same name, it’s a high-concept action/sci-fi/comedy about classic 80s arcade characters attacking the world with only a handful of former arcade champions capable of stopping them. Even though it rips off a superior short film and old Futurama episode, Pixels still at least sounded semi-clever and had the right elements to be a Sandler loser/comedy equivalent of Ghostbusters. Unfortunately, expecting anything other than the lowest common denominator garbage from the Happy Madison crew is always a mistake. This flick is absolutely horrible, failing to deliver any of the fun or even comedy in the premise. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves (except for Peter Dinklage, that guy is alright).
pixelsinsert3So, things kick off in an 80s flashback as we see a few teens compete in a massive arcade competition. For some reason, footage of the tournament is shot into space in a time capsule. Years later, aliens who received that message consider it an act of war attack earth using vintage arcade characters (don’t bother wondering why, there’s no real explanation offered, logical or otherwise). Sandler was an arcade prodigy back in that prologue, but now he’s a middle aged burn out in the Adam Sandler way. His best friend, Kevin James, became president somehow (again don’t ask, it won’t be explained), so he seeks Sandler’s help once he realizes the attacks are based on 80s arcade games. Eventually, Josh Gad joins the team as another geek, Peter Dinklage shows up as a former arcade rival, essentially playing Billy Mitchell from King of Kong, and Michelle Monaghan appears because no Sandler movie would be complete without a trophy love interest. Once all of those semi-funny people are together, it’s time for some semi-funny jokes and expensive 80s gaming action silliness.

Over the last five years, the once amusing Sandler has become quite possibly the laziest person in Hollywood. His movies all stick to the same rigid formula that presents the Sand-man as an underachieving nice guy who just needs one triumph to find love and acceptance. Pixels sticks to that nonsense so rigidly that Sandler barely even seems present. It’s impressive that they were even able to get him to stand upright during some scenes given how completely detached he seems to be from the movie. Clearly that disinterest carried over to the screenplay, which trots out a series of puns and poorly constructed one-liners in favour of jokes, and features ridiculously convenient plot twists as opposed to any sense of story structure. It’s almost insulting to watch the film. If Sandler had popped up on screen at one point and said, “We didn’t bother shooting the next scene because we wanted to go home early that day, so just deal with it you morons. Who gives a shit anyways?” I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised.
pixelsinsert4The rest of the cast seem equally uninspired, though to be fair, they don’t really have characters to play as much as a single personality trait stretched into a running gag. The only actor remotely enjoyable or memorable is Peter Dinklage as a raging ego and mullet. He’s hysterical and completely committed to the character to such a degree that you can’t help but be saddened by the fact that this was the best movie role the immensely talented actor was offered last year. He deserves better, and quite frankly, so does everyone else involved. That extends to director Chris Columbus, a man who has made some genuinely iconic movies like Home Alone, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Adventures in Babysitting. He’s had a rough run of bombs lately, but seemed like an interesting choice to helm this one, since it had the scale to actually feel like a movie as opposed to Sandler’s typically flat timewasters directed by his beer buddies. Aside from shots being framed slightly better than typical Happy Madison movies, Columbus clearly had little involvement with the dialogue scenes. He admittedly stages a couple of fun video game attack sequences, but given that none of the characters involved in the action are worth caring about, it’s hard to feel any sense of suspense or elation.

Even by the exceedingly low standards of Adam Sandler, Pixels is an absolutely god-awful trainwreck of a movie that wastes a fun concept and a talented cast. Not only is it unfunny, predictable, and tedious, but it seems to have been made with absolutely contempt for the audience. The fact that anyone involved could possibly think viewers wouldn’t see through the tiresome jokes, lazy story construction, and stolen ideas is unsettling. Aside from a few fun action scenes and Dinklage, this might actually be a new low-point from Adam Sandler, which is remarkable considering the fact that he made Jack and Jill. If the concept appeals to you at all, just check out the original short film on YouTube. The effects are just as good as this Hollywood version and you won’t have to sit through any of the 90 minutes of garbage surrounding it. Since so much more money was spent on this flick than the usual Sandler hogwash, we can only hope that it will bomb badly enough for him to worry about his career. There’s no excuse for this degree of apathy and audience contempt from Sandler. Making his movie successful would only be encouraging him. Don’t even consider it.