The remounted “Papillon,” starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in the roles made famous by Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffmann in the original, maintains the brutality of the 1973 film but plays more like a buddy flick than the resilience-of-the-human-spirit epic it should have been.
Based on the “75 percent true” tale of Henri Charrière, a safecracker nicknamed Papillon, the 1930’s era story sees him sent to a hellhole jungle penal colony in French Guyana for a crime he didn’t commit. Sentenced to life in prison with hard labour on Devil’s Island, he begins to plot his escape as soon as he arrives, despite the fact that no one has ever successfully fled the island. To assist and finance his plan he offers protection to Louis Dega (Malek), a spindly, wealthy, white-collar criminal with a relative fortune hidden in a place where the sun don’t shine. Faced with abominable conditions and dictatorial prison guards the pair, along with a couple of others, stages a daring run at freedom.
Leaner and meaner than the original the reboot nonetheless hews fairly closely to the 1973 screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Dalton Trumbo. Some grisly scenes featuring crocodiles and lepers have been blue-pencilled but the basic idea of the bond between the two men in the face of unimaginable adversity remains. Hunnam and Malek make a good team—with Malek even giving the Degas character more inner life than Hoffmann managed—but the movie itself doesn’t contain the same sense of struggle. Certainly there is violence, Hunnam is frequently covered in blood, mud or worse, but the previous film was grittier, less refined. Dialogue was sparse—in the new one Hunnam and Malek chatter like school kids throughout—and there was a sense of hopelessness that fuelled the need for escape. Here their mission feels pat, like a typical prison drama. It’s less meaningful, simply a run from the violence and horrors of their incarceration, and not a spiritual journey.
“Papillon” gets much right and features nice performances from the leads but feels like an unnecessary revamping of the story.