Fresh off a Best Original Screenplay Oscar win for Belfast (which feels like a perfunctory consolation prize), Kenneth Branagh is blowing up all over those Roku City billboards. That’s right, everyone! Hercule Poirot is back in I Mustache You a Few Questions, aka By the Bouc, aka Poirot-rot-rot Your Boat.
JK, JK. It’s Death on the Nile, Branagh’s sequel to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express — now available to stream on HBO Max and Hulu just weeks after a February theatrical release. Once again, Branagh directs and stars as Agatha Christie’s legendary detective, this time investigating the mysterious murder of a millionaire aboard an Egyptian cruise. The quasi-star cast of suspects includes Armie Hammer, Letitia Wright, Russell Brand and … well, some other performers who aren’t currently the stuff of publicists’ nightmares.
Of course, Nile was filmed well before a pandemic that revealed Wright and Brand as subscribers to crackpot COVID conspiracy theories, and well before Hammer was hit with career-ending allegations of abuse against women that included pelvic branding and cannibal fantasies. Plus, Nile is the latest 20th Century Fox castoff that its new corporate daddy, Disney, essentially dumped to scheduling dregs.
Last year, similar treatment awaited The King’s Man, West Side Story, Ron’s Gone Wrong and Nightmare Alley. After marketing, those four films collectively cost well more than $500 million and grossed about $300 million worldwide. Comparatively, Express turned a profit of more than a quarter-billion dollars back in 2017. Again, different times. But even under the best of circumstances, the answer to Express’s success would not seem to have been giving Branagh $90 million to muddle things up with dodgy computer-generated backdrops and truly decrepit pacing. (Nile perhaps slightly outpaced its production-and-marketing budget for mild theatrical profitability.)
Memory doesn’t serve another whodunit with a first-hour seafood sale that offers this much red herring at everything-must-go prices. As John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Gr… I mean, Hercule Poirot might say: “Eef eet whaz served, I would send eet BACK!”
Little of interest or narrative consequence occurs in the first hour of Nile, save a black-and-white origin story of Poirot’s signature bushy mustache that feels like a trial run for Branagh and cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos’s visual aesthetic on Belfast. (The sequence includes an uproarious de-aging of Branagh’s face that makes you wish they’d redo Belfast that way, all the way back to making him 9 years old.) There is a description of Hammer’s character as an “engorged stallion” and a sequence of him dry-hump-dancing co-stars Emma Mackey and Gal Gadot for several minutes that surely could have been edited down to feel less skeevy than it does today. (Could Hammer have been edited out or around? That’s a resounding no.)
However, from the moment one suspect screams at Poirot that his accusations are “not the kind of thing you can prove on a boat,” Death on the Nile becomes a case of maritime law and disorder that would make Chareth Cutestory proud. At one point, Branagh scampers around like he’s chasing Ghostface, and unlike Express (whose cast had a far higher pedigree of wasted talent), Nile is stacked with second-stringers who read and understood the assignment of daytime soapiness. When the specifics of the murder plot are revealed, Annette Bening’s character gasps no fewer than three separate times, each more exquisitely hysterical than the last. Frankly, you won’t care that Poirot needs only Occam’s Razor to shave down his latest hairy situation.
As for the returning Bouc (Tom Bateman), he … wait, Bouc? Yeah, Bouc! You know … Bouc! Poirot’s little exposition-spouting buddy? Yeah! Bouc is back. Don’t remember Bouc? That’s OK. Who does? Poor Bouc. Not even one-third of the people who saw this and Express will remember Bouc. And if you don’t think the name Bouc appears a lot here, just try a drinking game requiring a sip every time you hear his name in the movie. Why, you wouldn’t have enough champagne … to fill the Nile!