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What to know about 'Death on the Nile,' the mystery starring Armie Hammer, Gal Gadot

Eric Webb
Austin 360

Murder! Mystery! Mustache! Mayhem.

Much like the plagues that biblically, um, plagued ancient Egypt, the film "Death on the Nile" suffered its fair share of locusts. Pandemic delays, for one. (It was originally a Christmas 2019 joint.) The kind of star controversies that can tank a movie, for another. (Letitia Wright's vaccine skepticism, Gal Gadot's public messaging on Palestine and, perhaps most radioactively, allegations of sexual assault against Armie Hammer, though rumors of the actor's cannibalism fantasies overshadowed that in the public consciousness.)

But here we are, rounding the corner on a year since cinematic blockbusters have returned to pandemic-beleaguered theaters, and "Death on the Nile" is finally out this week.

n director Kenneth Branagh’s mystery-thriller “Death on the Nile,” based on the 1937 novel by Agatha Christie, Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) are a picture-perfect couple on a honeymoon voyage down the Nile River that is tragically cut short.

Hey: It's not bad. Was it worth more than two years of delays to see one of Hollywood's most disgraced leading men fumble around with Wonder Woman next to an ancient tomb? That's gonna be big shrug, chief.

"Death on the Nile" follows up another Agatha Christie adaptation, "Murder on the Orient Express," starring Branagh as the prickly genius detective Hercule Poirot. This time, the inspector's Egyptian holiday is interrupted by still more wealthy people with indeterminate accents, some of whom have blood on their minds.

Fabulously rich heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gadot) and her new husband Simon Doyle (Hammer) happen to be honeymooning in the land of pharaohs. They're being stalked by scorned woman Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey of sublime Netflix comedy "Sex Education," in a real good-for-her role).

Poirot follows the sinister triangle onto a sumptuous river liner called the Karnak. They're joined by a "Clue" board of frenemies, including Poirot's confidant Bouc (Tom Bateman) and his venomous mother (Annette Bening); Linnet's communist godmother and her companion (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French); a jazz singer (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece (Wright); and a handful of others with, as they say in the biz, a motive to kill.

And kill, they — who? — do. Poirot's on the case.

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One shan't waste a moment on critiquing the central detective tale, since Christie helped invent the modern genre. Screenwriter Michael Green updates Christie's original story with jazz age flair and a few modern sensibilities that are still underexplored, especially issues of race and sexuality. The formula — quirky detective interrogates suspects as they're knocked off one by one, then locks the survivors in a room and tells everyone what really happened in glorious flashback — works its charms even still. See the success of Christie-indebted "Knives Out" for more proof.

Branagh's retelling doesn't ask for much from the audience except faith in a good caper and awe over golden African vistas. The boat's luxurious, the pyramids look pointy and Gadot's wardrobe would make a Depop seller salivate. The injection of blues swirling around Okonedo's Salome is welcomed and transporting.

Gal Gadot as Linnet Ridgeway, Emma Mackey as Jacqueline de Bellefort and Armie Hammer as Simon Doyle in "Death on the Nile."

For all its grandeur, "Death on the Nile" also is a little silly. Sometimes that uncovers corny gems; in one truly baffling scene, Gadot cosplays Cleopatra and utters the line "I have immortal longings in me" with complete sincerity. See also Wright's Rosalie comparing Poirot to a bloodhound and urging like a Howard Hawks dame: "Let him sniff."

The silliness gets away from Branagh and his players a few times and doesn't tip the boat over, though the movie takes on some water. Watching Gadot and Hammer frisk each other next to a tomb has all the sex appeal of two armoires colliding in a sand dune. A prologue shot in inky, Robert Eggers-style monochrome seeks to give Poirot humanizing backstory, but it can't leave well enough alone and gives his signature mustache a tragic Marvel superhero origin story. Things like that.

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Casting dictionary-definition beauties like Gadot and Hammer as the central lovers surely was irresistible. It's hard to watch Hammer these days, and for many, he'll likely spoil the pot. His Madonna-grade British accent will help. Gadot opts to keep her Israeli-flecked purr, probably thankfully. She's got about one gear — regal grace — and she stays in her lane. 

Kudos to the spiky Mackey, who manages to make the most stunning entrance in a movie that stars a former Miss Universe contestant. More for her, please. (And stream "Sex Education" for your health.)

It's Branagh's show, though. His pompous, prescient Poirot makes for a great port in the storm. This Belgian's got a heart of gold. He's helped most by the supporting players, particularly Bateman and Okonedo, who bring out new dimensions in a detective character whom audiences first met in the shadow of World War I. And, yes, another pandemic.

There was a river of mess to get to "Death on the Nile." Branagh, at least, found a way to wade through.

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in "Death on the Nile."

'Death on the Nile'

Grade: B-

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Emma Mackey

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13 for violence, some bloody images, sexual material

Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes

Watch: In theaters