“Murder on the Orient Express” is a throwback to a throwback, a remake of a movie that itself looked nostalgically back to the grand all-star vehicles of the studio days. Back in 1974, they still had some of those stars around, like Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall, both of whom appeared in the first “Murder,” alongside Albert Finney as a vain, witty Hercule Poirot and a raft of Very Special Guests.
The original was a good idea that now looks surprisingly dull in practice, and it’s pretty easy to figure out why. A drawing room mystery (based on a novel by the master of the form, Agatha Christie) that has been crammed into the confines of a trans-Europe train compartment, it mostly sits there jawing away, with occasional shots of chugging train pistons to keep it moving. (It doesn’t help that the director was Sidney Lumet, much more at home in his native New York.)
Nevertheless, the 1974 “Murder on the Orient Express” has a reputation as a classic, and the idea of so many name stars lined up in a row still strikes most of us as good value. Thus the remake, and all I have to do is say Depp, Pfeiffer, Dench, Dafoe, and Daisy Ridley of the new “Star Wars” movies, and you’re probably in, no?
There’s a name I left out: Kenneth Branagh, the ambitious British hyphenate who directed the new “Murder” and who stars as the great Belgian detective under one of the most byzantine moustaches in the annals of cinema. Seriously, the thing has multiple levels of architecture, and the moustache guard Poirot wears to bed is an even more medieval contraption than the one Finney sported.
Branagh gives a broad, smart performance that lacks the self-mocking humor of Finney’s interpretation; as director, he avails himself of computer technology and the faster pace of today’s movies to liven up the film as best he can. He creates a dazzling digital 1934 Istanbul and a vast, snowy Yugoslavian mountain range for the Orient Express to barrel through, and whenever he can, Branagh gets the cast out of the train so they can chase each other around a bit.
Still, the immense size of the cast works against a fleet “Murder on the Orient Express” and always will. Someone has been stabbed to death, and to get to the bottom of it, Poirot has to talk to the other passengers. All of the other passengers. One by one. Despite throwing flashbacks against the screen every so often and hoping they’ll stick, there’s not much Branagh can do about it.
What keeps you watching is the pleasure of good actors enjoying a minor field day. The headliners include Johnny Depp as a nasty brute of a gangster — it’s an actual role instead of a stunt and the star gives it a good chew; Michelle Pfeiffer in deep clover as a brassy American divorcee, the part Bacall played in ’74; Dame Judi Dench as an imperious Russian dowager (waited on by a saucer-eyed German companion played by the fine British actress Olivia Colman); and Penelope Cruz in the old Ingrid Bergman role, a spinster quaking with religious fervor (weird casting in both cases).
Ridley expertly broadens her resume as a governess who’s almost if not quite as sharp as the great detective, and up from Broadway (and his role as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton”) is Leslie Odom Jr. as her surgeon lover. But wait, there’s more! Derek Jacobi as Depp’s valet — try as I might, I still can’t see anyone but John Gielgud in the part — and Josh Gad as a shifty accountant and Willem Dafoe as a sniffy Austrian professor behind funny goggles! There are one or three or eight others that matter to the proceedings, and after a while the movie gets more crowded than the stateroom scene in “A Night at the Opera.”
Some of the characters aren’t who they say there are, and some of the actors have screen time that’s incommensurate with their top billing or placement on the movie posters. Yet despite a few sloppy parts (wigs that reappear after they’ve been taken off, that sort of thing), “Murder on the Orient Express” manages to keep you watching to the end. It’s a comfortable club chair of a movie that has been re-upholstered with just enough style and stuffing to sink into happily — and maybe have a little doze.
And if you do make it to the end, you’ll be rewarded with a honey of a scene in which one of the above-named actors puts new juice into the old “Sure, I did it and I’m glad” speech. And that’s when you remember what a real movie star looks like.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie. Starring Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 115 minutes. PG-13 (violence and thematic elements)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.