This is an modern-day adaptation of the original story, set in 2001 and featuring a smaller cast and therefore fewer suspects. The suspects also have backgrounds different from the original book.
(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)
In 2001, Hercule Poirot (Alfred Molina) receives a request from his one-time love interest and former jewel thief Vera Rossakoff (Tasha de Vasconcelos) to come to Istanbul to solve a murder which took place in in a bar she owns. The film opens with the denouement of this case. A belly dancer in the bar received a fax that simply says "Live not on evil, Madam, live not on evil", and is found the next morning on the floor of a nightclub, murdered with a bullet through her heart. The suspects include her protegee-turned-rival; her father, with a political and secret past; and her spurned lover, a linguistics scholar. Poirot correctly deduces that the fax message is a palindrome and the murderer is the linguistics scholar, who is also an arms dealer that she was threatening to expose. The scholar tries to escape, but is arrested by the police
With the case over, Vera Rossakoff suggests that she and Poirot get married and settle down in Istanbul. Poirot refuses the offer, as it would not suit his career, and she walks away, disgusted by his arrogance.
At his hotel, Poirot comes across his old friend Wolfgang Bouc (Fritz Wepper), the director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Poirot decides to ride the Orient Express rather than take an airplane back to London, as he does not like airplanes. Meanwhile, an American millionaire named Sam Ratchett (Peter Strauss) is threatened with death by an anonymous phone caller; Ratchett angrily hangs up, demanding no more phone calls.
On board the Orient Express Poirot meets Ratchett in the dining car. Ratchett recalls that on TV, Poirot had been referred to as "Sleuth Supreme". He wants to hire Poirot to find out who has been threatening his life, and offers a fee of $200,000 tax-free (up from $20,000 in the book--inflation). Poirot refuses, and says that he finds Ratchett intolerable.
That night, Poirot is awakened by a crashing noise from Ratchett's compartment. The conductor Pierre comes to check, but Ratchett is heard saying in French that it is nothing. Thereafter, the train stops because of a rockslide obstructing the line. Poirot is awakened again and hears Mrs Hubbard complaining to the conductor about a man hiding in her compartment.
The next morning, Ratchett is found murdered in his bed, with 9 stab wounds (not 12 as in the novel). They exhibit the same pattern as in the book--at least 3 were deep enough to be fatal but some were mere scratches. Bouc pleads for Poirot to solve the case before the rock slide is cleared so that they can present the police at Belgrade with a solution. Poirot agrees.
Ratchett's compartment has many of the same clues as in the book: handkerchief with letter "H". smashed wristwatch stopped at 1.15. There is also a computer stylus.
Poirot interviews the 9 suspects on the train:
- William MacQueen (Adam James), Ratchett's assistant and consultant on ancient art.
- Pierre Michel (Nicolas Chagrin), the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits conductor who aides Poirot in his investigation.
- Caroline Hubbard (Meredith Baxter), a TV sitcom actress.
- "Bob" Arbuthnot (David Hunt), the founder and CEO of a Seattle-based software company called DigiSaurus.
- Antonio "Tony" Foscarelli (Dylan Smith), an Italian exercise-equipment salesman working in America.
- Señora Nina Alvarado (Leslie Caron), the widow of a South American dictator.
- Philip von Strauss (Kai Wiesinger), a French man with connections to Monegasque royalty.
- Elena von Strauss (Amira Casar), Philip's young wife.
- Mary Debenham (Natasha Wightman), Arbuthnot's English girlfriend, of whom he is very protective.
Interspersed with these interviews, Poirot consults other evidence. Earlier Ratchett had been seen angrily smashing a video tape he had received. Poirot and Bouc watch it and see a few seconds news footage about the kidnap and death of Daisy Armstrong.
Poirot also borrows Arbuthnot's laptop and, from the internet, retrieves background information. Arbuthnot was the college friend of Steve Armstrong; the two of them founded Cheetah Software while in UCLA before making their own companies: Arbuthnot would create DigiSaurus, while Armstrong would create WizBang, a software company so successful that it made him a billionaire. Relocating to New York, Steve Armstrong later married a socialite named Sonia Armstrong, the daughter of an actress and a real estate developer.
They had one daughter: Daisy Armstrong, who would later be kidnapped, and when her parents paid the ransom money, she was murdered. Sonia, who was pregnant with another baby, gave birth prematurely, and suffered a fatal miscarriage; Steve Armstrong committed suicide. The police arrested a French nursemaid. She hanged herself before she was exonerated.
The police later arrested the real criminal, a man named Cassetti and nicknamed "The Rattler" because of a rattlesnake tattoo on his chest. Cassetti used his newfound wealth to hire impressive defense lawyers who managed to successfully convince the jury that he was innocent. Cassetti then took the money and went on the run.
Poirot and Bouc inspect Ratchett's body. Cassetti wore spectacles. Ratchett had recent laser surgery to correct myopia. Ratchett's chest had scars consistent with a tattoo being surgically removed. Poirot concludes that Ratchett was Cassetti.
After interviewing most of the suspects, Poirot decides to return to Elena von Strauss, whom he had not finished interviewing due to a previous interruption. After taking one last look at a video of Daisy's birthday party, he notices a woman holding the birthday cake, and realizes that it is Elena von Strauss, and that her name is actually Helena. With this new information, he interviews Helena about the Armstrong family. Helena confesses the truth, but also says that she did not murder Ratchett, and Philip swears that she did not kill Ratchett. Poirot asks Helena what other household members there were, and she tells him that there was a cook, a gardener, a personal trainer fixated on exercise, and an elderly Scottish tutor named Mrs. Lassiter.
As Poirot exits the Strauss' compartment, he is violently and loudly confronted by Arbuthnot, who is furious about Poirot's interview with Mary Debenham: Poirot had heard Debenham and Arbuthnot discussing something private earlier in the film, and directly confronted her about it during the interview; she refused to answer and left. Arbuthnot, fed up with Poirot's investigative demeanor, demands that he either solve the case or keep quiet about it. Poirot calmly tells Bouc to round up the passengers and take them to the bar car.
At the same time, the blockage is cleared, and the train starts moving again towards Belgrade.
Poirot presents two scenarios to the passengers: the first one is that a mysterious assassin had been sending Ratchett phone calls that threatened his life. Then, while on the train, dressed up in a Wagons-Lits Conductor's uniform and murdered Ratchett while he was sleeping. Ratchett would have tried to fight back his assailant, but would have succumbed to his wounds anyway. The murderer would then have to find a way off the train, and opened the window as a possible escape route, but would have given it a second thought as the train would be moving too fast, so he enters Mrs. Hubbard's compartment (throughout the whole movie, Mrs. Hubbard claims that a man was in her compartment) and left behind a single button from the jacket, and moved on as if nothing had happened.
The second solution is more unlikely, according to Poirot, and Poirot explains the information he has gathered. Ratchett never spoke any languages other than English, but when Pierre answered his call, he responded in French; Debenham claims that she had never been in America, but she uses words like "vacation" and "attorney", instead of "holiday" and "solicitor"; And although Señora Alvarado has no initials with the letter "H", she is friends with the Russian ballet dancer Yevgeny Dragomiroff, who gave her an embroidered hankerchief with the Cyrillic letter N, written similarly to the Western letter "H"; Ratchett's watch stopped at 1:15 because he forgot to set his watch back 1 hour as they were travelling.
Poirot also explains that each one of them had motive to kill Ratchett, as they all had connections with the Armstrong family:
- Arbuthnot was Steve Armstrong's best friend since childhood and college, as well as his business partner.
- MacQueen was familiar with Sonya Armstrong, and thought very highly of her.
- Helena von Strauss is Sonya Armstrong's younger sister; Philip von Strauss is Sonya Armstrong's brother-in-law.
- Alvarado is Linda Arden's best friend and is formerly Sonya Armstrong's godmother.
- Foscarelli was Steve Armstrong's personal trainer.
- Debenham was Daisy Armstrong's tutor. In addition, Helena had fictionalized her as an elderly Scottish woman with red hair, the opposite of Debenham's appearance: a young English woman with dark hair.
- Michel was the father of the French nursemaid who committed suicide.
- Hubbard is actually Linda Arden: Sonya Armstrong's mother and Daisy's grandmother. Arden had retired from acting due to alleged failing health.
With these motives revealed, Poirot confirms that every one of the passengers, including Pierre - who had aided them in the investigation - were responsible for murdering Ratchett. However, Helena, who was too afraid to take someone's life away, even though he had done so with her family, did not stab him; Philip stabbed Cassetti for her. Poirot then says that the second story would be unbelievable to the Belgradan police, and leaves the decision to Bouc as to which story to tell the police; Bouc thinks that justice has already been served.
At Belgrade Station, Debenham approaches Poirot, and tells Poirot that her first thoughts on him were wrong, and thanks him before walking off. As Poirot and Bouc talk about what would happen, Vera Rossakoff walks out of the steam cloud, and she and Poirot rekindle their relationship.
Poirot narrates what has happened to everyone since the murder:
- Foscarelli was named the "King of Infomercials" by the Wall Street Journal. His latest product reduces cellulite by a small electric shock.
- Pierre, despite his involvement in the crime, is still employed by the Orient Express.
- MacQueen is the Curator of Antiquities at the Arbuthnot Wing in the Seattle Museum of Art.
- Philip and Helena attempt to climb to the top of Mount Everest; Philip loses two toes to frostbite.
- Sra. Alvarado is the honorary chairperson of Fashion vs. Famine, an organization that aids starving children through couture clothing.
- Bouc retires early from the Orient Express and opens an Istanbul detective agency.
- Debenham and Arbuthnot marry and reside in Seattle.
- Hubbard/Arden appears in a Salt Lake City dinner theatre production of The Mousetrap, an Agatha Christie play.
- Poirot does not say what he and Vera do exactly, but it is presumed that they marry and have further adventures.
- Alfred Molina as Hercule Poirot
- Fritz Wepper as Wolfgang Bouc
- Peter Strauss as Lanfranco "The Rattler" Cassetti/Sam Ratchett
- Tasha de Vasconcelos as Vera Rossakoff
- Adam James as William MacQueen
- Nicolas Chagrin as Pierre Michel
- Meredith Baxter as Mrs. Caroline Hubbard
- David Hunt as Robert "Bob" Arbuthnot
- Dylan Smith as Antonio "Tony" Foscarelli
- Leslie Caron as Sra. Nina Alvarado
- Amira Casar as Helena von Strauss
- Kai Wiesinger as Philip von Strauss
- Natasha Wightman as Mary Debenham
- Jason Croot as Train Guard
- In this adaptation, the landslide takes place on the way to Belgrade and the train ends up at Belgrade after the murder. In the original, the snowdrift happens after Belgrade and the train ends up at Brod.
- In the reconstruction of the stabbing scene, there are only eight people who do the stabbing but earlier on, Poirot said there were nine stab wounds. Piere Michel and Linda Arden were shown to have stabbed twice but then this should have resulted in ten wounds, unless one of them was the same.