Starring Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek
A remake of the 70’s film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, director Michael Noer (who has directed nothing you would recognize) updates the arguably true story of Henri “Papillion” Charriere with modern technology. “Papillion” is an epic story in the telling but not always in the watching. The introduction to our main character is brief, so he can quickly begin his long term in prison and multiple escapes. Hunnam (“King Arthur”) continues to grow as an actor, and by grow, I mean look more like 30-year-old Brad Pitt. Malek (“Mr. Robot”) continues his climb towards feature film star, but this isn’t the flick to get him there. “Papillion” debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year and wasn’t released for an entire year because all major distributors passed on it. Pacing issues and genre clichés are “Papillon’s” biggest drawbacks.
Convicted of murder, thief Papillon (Hunnam) is sentenced to life in prison and exiled from France. Maintaining his innocence, he understands a tattooed man with mob connections has no chance of appeal. His punishment is the isolated French Guiana where the guard explains that to escape means starvation in the bush or being eaten by sharks if they are not shot first. The first attempt lands you two years solitary confinement, the second five years. Any murder committed is straight to the guillotine. Papillion understands money is the only way to plan an escape and fellow inmate Louis Dega is literally full of it. Hidden inside his bowels, Dega agrees to share his wealth in exchange for protection. Prison is far worse than either imagined and escape seems almost impossible.
The script works hard to keep the narrative moving, however with so much story to tell and years to cover, the monotony sets in eventually
For those unfamiliar with the story, “Papillion” will provide a few moments of heightened suspense. The script works hard to keep the narrative moving, however with so much story to tell and years to cover, the monotony sets in eventually. Each prison location whether it’s the transport ship, Devils Island or solitary, feels like borrowed scenes from better films. In one escape sequence where Malek character is the last to decent a wall, we can see the broken leg coming before he even starts to climb. The surprises in the story have more to do with kindness and friendship over plot device. One fight sequence occurs in the shower where Hunnam fights for his life in the nude, not quite matching the intensity of Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises.
It occurred to me during some of the slower scenes, that “Papillion” follows the same structure as The Lost City of Z, also starring Hunnam. The subject matter isn’t the same, despite both being based on a true story. In both films a scruffy Hunnam plans escape/expeditions, tries it, goes back to planning, tries again, back to planning… Both films failed to appeal to a wide audience, were difficult to market and extremely monotonous. “Papillion” is the type of story that is moderately interesting once, but having to sit through this again would be near torture with the violence and putrid environment. Some of the more exotic locations and scenarios are short changed due to time constraints. Devil’s Island for instance is one of the most interesting locations but little screen-time is spent there or Columbia where events that have been removed from the film occurred.
This remake might improve visually and technically on the original, but adds little to the modern day prison genre.