Let’s start with the obvious: Death, Deceit and Destiny Aboard the Orient Express is a miserable excuse for a title. Off the top of my head, I can drum up a handful of perfectly serviceable alternatives: Terror on the Orient Express, say, or Millennial Terror, or, my personal pick, the spoilery yet evocative Throw Sendhil from the Train.
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.
Death, Deceit and Destiny Aboard the Orient Express is a 2001 joint Canada-UK-Bulgaria-Italy production. Judging by the end result, it’s probably fair to assume that none of the aforementioned countries saw a return on their investment. It was filmed on location in Bulgaria with a largely Bulgarian cast and crew. Many of the actors appear to be speaking their lines phonetically. It stars Richard Grieco. These are not the elements of a breakaway hit.
It’s New Year’s Eve at the turn of the millennium, and a bunch of the world’s richest and most gullible are onboard the Orient Express bound for Istanbul as the guests of a mysterious benefactor. The setting led me to hope we were in for an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery, with Grieco as a do-rag-wearing Hercule Poirot, but alas, this was not to be. The mysterious host turns out to be a top international terrorist (future Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, a long way from his star turn in Inglourious Basterds), who has lured everyone onto the train for the purpose of extorting exorbitant ransoms for their release. The passengers include Grieco as a world-famous action star (don’t giggle. Twenty years ago, in the early days of the Fox network, Grieco was sort of famous, almost), a blustery Australian titan of industry, a blustery American titan of industry, a Russian ballerina and her sinister escort, a female pop duo, a washed-up actress, and sundry hangers-on. There’s also Heroes’ resident hot little piece, Sendhil Ramamurthy, who plays the sweet, shallow, slutty, party-boy son of the billionaire ruler of the totally made-up oil-producing nation of Bassan. As is so often the case with important Middle Eastern scions, his name is Nikki.
(There’s a nice moment during their initial meeting where Nikki shyly tells Grieco he’s seen all his movies, complete with mutual bashful smiles and blushes. Either there’s some freaking phenomenal acting going on, or Sendhil just outed himself as a longtime 21 Jump Street fan. In any case, it’s wholly charming.)
Shortly after departure, terrorists take over the train, murder the entire crew, and wire the train with explosives. After this promising start, the terrorists quickly descend into rank incompetence: instead of controlling and intimidating their hostages, they spend most of their time fetching champagne and caviar for them, all of whom seem more bored and irritated than terrorized. Early on, Grieco accidentally kills the Russian thug during a quarrel over the ballerina, and the terrorists pretty much shrug it off. I’m no expert, but it seems like this should be one of the ground rules of kidnapping and hostage-taking: try not to let your valuable captives murder each other. Grieco and the ballerina also spend a good third of the film’s zippy 83-minute running time scampering about on top of the train defusing bombs, and the terrorists can hardly be bothered to notice their absence.
In a superfluous yet welcome interlude, one of the pop stars lures beautiful Nikki back to her room for a champagne-fueled hand of strip poker. Nikki, I am delighted to say, loses. Yes, we do get a precious glimpse of Sendhil’s lovely ass, and isn’t that worth the 5.5 GBP I shelled out for the DVD on eBay right there, particularly in light of the current favorable exchange rate? (My copy, by the way, came from the Netherlands. I left on the subtitles, just because Dutch is the world’s most awesome language. For example, “We’re all going to die!” is translated as “We gaan allemaal dood!”)
The passengers, save Grieco, decide to give in to the head terrorist’s ransom demand. Grieco takes umbrage at this and sanctimoniously proclaims, “Who really is the bad guy here--him, or you?” Grieco, hon, it’s awesome that you’re too noble and/or foolhardy to kowtow to terrorists, but there’s no need to be a tool about it.
When Nikki calls his father to ask for the ransom money, the request gets intercepted by his evil twin brother, Yussef. Thus we come to the film’s most brilliantly nitwitty plot twist, which was probably just a happy accident when the filmmakers were unable to find a single actor of Middle Eastern origin, much less two, and just ended up asking Sendhil to play both parts. (Sendhil is, of course, not even remotely Middle Eastern. At first I considered being offended by the casting, then decided to let it go, seeing as: a) at least he’s not playing a terrorist, and b) at least the terrorists are all played by a bunch of white dudes. Progress! Or something!) It’s hard to have a bad plot twist involving an evil twin brother. That’s storytelling gold right there.
(Helpful hint for prospective parents of twins: You are courting disaster if you name one son “Nikki” and the other “Yussef.”)
Yussef, communicating to Nikki via a camera phone, is seen standing in front of a map of the Middle East. I’m all in favor of films keeping runaway production costs under control by not building extravagant sets for locations only used fleetingly, but that’s just sad. Anyway, Yussef, who is delighted at the prospect of terrorists blowing up his twin, gleefully refuses to cough up the dough for Nikki’s release. The terrorists manhandle Nikki a bit, then decide to throw him off the train. Here’s where I officially lose patience with them, for a couple of reasons:
1. Seeing as it’s a matter of a prospective fifty million dollars in ransom, maybe they should try a little harder to get the money before killing their cash cow, and:
2. Sweet, pretty, slutty party-boys are one of the world’s greatest natural resources and should be treasured accordingly.
Once it dawns on Nikki that they’re going to kill him, he pleads with Grieco to save him. Grieco, gutted by the impending slaughter of one of the few people who think If Looks Could Kill is a really good movie, caresses Nikki’s face a bit. This is sweet, but not of much practical help to poor Nikki, who gets tossed out the window. As this film ably demonstrates, it’s no small matter to toss a struggling adult out of one of those tiny, high train windows; I don’t mean to tell the terrorists their job, but trains have doors, too.
Enraged at the murder of doe-eyed Nikki, the passengers band together and set about karate-chopping and knifing the terrorists into submission. Now if they’d only been able to summon this outrage before Nikki got offed, maybe this movie would have been over before the train even pulled out of Paris. Mayhem ensues. Grieco and the ballerina scamper about on top of the train defusing more bombs. One of the terrorists rips off a rubber mask to reveal he’s actually… a totally different terrorist! I’m sorry -- I know it’s a pile of crap, but I’m incapable of hating any film that draws inspiration from Scooby-Doo episodes. The terrorists are thwarted, and the surviving passengers arrive safely in Istanbul in time for the turning of the millennium, fireworks and all.
One final note: the thrilling climax involves Grieco and the ballerina leaping off the moving train just as it explodes, whereupon they land safely on the ground. In light of this, and considering that we never see Nikki’s mangled corpse, I feel it is perfectly logical to assume he landed in an especially soft snowbank somewhere in Hungary and hoofed it to Budapest in his expensive loafers and cantaloupe-colored sweater, then made his way safely back to Bassan, whereupon he ordered his miscreant twin flogged in the public square before attending to more important affairs of state, like arranging to have Gwen Stefani perform at his birthday party. I’m pretty sure this is exactly what happened, and no doubt the director’s cut on the inevitable Criterion Collection DVD release will bear this out.
(Pictures used with permission from this cool site, which is a treasure trove of screencaps from some of the stranger backwaters of Sendhil’s filmography. Want to see a naked and bewigged Sendhil playing Adam in a Biblical epic? This is your kind of place.)