Film Review: Papillon

New Take On Famed French Tale Of Prison Life Can’t Escape The Past

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
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It’s no secret that Hollywood loves its remakes. Although it seems now as if audiences are being inundated with reboots, remakes and assorted sequels, that’s basically been the case since the dawn of the silent era. (By way of example, at least six versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were shot between 1903 and 1927.) But there’s a fine line to be walked when redoing a critically acclaimed film, as opposed to simply a popular movie. Muff a remake Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (as Len Wiseman did in 2012), and people will probably ignore it. Screw up a remake Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (as Gus Van Sant did in 1998), and people will rip you apart. So, despite the inadvisability of taking another run at 1973’s highly regarded, Academy Award-nominated Papillon, someone has gone and done just that.

Danish director Michael Noer (known mostly for documentaries like
Vestrbro, The Wild Hearts and Son of God) takes over for Frank J. Schaffner (a not-too-well known Hollywood name, who nonetheless directed Planet of the Apes, Patton, Nicholas and Alexandra, Islands in the Stream and The Boys From Brazil). Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowksi (creator of the gritty SundanceTV crime series “The Red Road”) similarly replaces the original screenwriting team of Dalton Trumbo (A Guy Named Joe, Roman Holiday, Spartacus) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor and a whole lot of “Batman” episodes). It’s a tough act to follow.

Like the original, the basis of this hard-hitting tale of survival is the famed biography by Henri Charriere, better known by the nickname Papillon. The film starts off briefly reveling in the prewar Parisian life of handsome rogue Papillon (“Sons of Anarchy” star Charlie Hunnam, taking over for Steve McQueen). Our boy Papillon is a professional thief and safecracker enjoying all that 1931 Paris has to offer. Noer indulges himself (perhaps a bit too much) with these early scenes, whirling his camera around a small but lush set filled with flashing lights, thumping jazz and topless dancing girls. It’s hard to begrudge him the stylistic indulgence, knowing what’s on the horizon.

A fallout with his criminal kingpin of an employer finds Papillon framed for a murder he didn’t commit. He’s soon packed up by the local police and shipped off to a notoriously brutal penal colony halfway around the world in French Guiana.

En route, Papi encounters reedy white-collar criminal Louis Dega (Rami Malik from “Mr. Robot,” stepping into Dustin Hoffman’s shoes). Dega is a former banker who got busted for forging government bonds. The rumor is he’s smuggled a sizable fortune into the penal colony, secreted away in a very personal place. Sensing an opportunity, Papillon offers to protect Dega from the other prisoners, provided he bankrolls an escape whenever the opportunity presents. The harsh realities of life in this tropical hellhole of a prison soon make themselves quite clear to Dega, and he forms a mutually beneficial relationship with our titular tough guy.

The makers of
Papillon have certainly done their best to pay tribute to the original. Hunnam’s scruffy charisma and Malik’s twitchy appeal make them carbon copies of McQueen and Hoffman. On the one hand, it’s clever casting. On the other hand, it’s almost too on-the-nose. It’s as if the makers have recast McQueen and Hoffman, not Papillon and Dega. Hunnam and Malik, fine as they are in the roles, simply beg too much comparison to the originals. (Though, admittedly, I can’t help but imagine Malik in a remake of Midnight Cowboy now.)

The film, shot on location in Montenegro, looks gorgeous. Noer’s images remain crisp and color-saturated, no matter how deeply the film wallows in filth and squalor. (Quite deeply, as it turns out.) From a sanity-sapping stint in solitary confinement to the daunting cliffs of Devil’s Island, Papillon’s tale remains epic and gripping and white-knuckle tense. Throughout various doomed schemes and near-miss escape attempts, the indomitability of the human spirit comes through as the story’s guiding theme.

Guzikowski’s script borrows more than a few cues and liberties from Trumbo and Semple’s script. Nonetheless, it remains true enough to the spirit of Papillon’s biography. (Whether Papillon was telling the truth or spinning a fantastical adventure yarn remains something of a mystery—there have been debates.) If only the screenwriter and his directing partner could have teased out more of the story’s deeper subtext. There are metaphors ripe for the picking here, but the filmmakers leave them to spoil on the vine, instead presenting a rigidly straightforward, factually motivated tale of manly friendship and intestinal fortitude.

Judged on its own terms,
Papillon is an alternately harrowing and rousing saga of brutality and bravado. It’s entertaining, well-cast and professionally shot. The 1973 version had its own particular flaws, to be sure. But the new version—credible as it is in fits and starts—just doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself narratively or stylistically. And if you can’t do that, it’s hard to justify the need for remaking a Hollywood classic.
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