‘Papillon’ Review: Despair Tough to Escape in Remake of Prison Epic

Updated take on the 1973 classic offers solid performances and plenty of action, but fails to inspire like the original

Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman brought star power to this escape-from-Devil’s-Island epic back in 1973. Now Papillon has been remade with Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in the roles of two prisoners who plan to bust out of their dehumanizing cage in colonial French Guiana. Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) and Malek (Mr. Robot) are not quite box-office names yet, but their acting chops are undeniable. And this true-life tale, based on the 1969 memoirs of Henri Charrière, still holds your attention. But a pall of been-there-done-that hangs over the remake, making it seem familiar even if you’ve never seen it. Danish director Michael Noer, working from a script by Aaron Guzikowski, moves things along efficiently without ever making you feel the new Papillon has a compelling reason for being.

Hunnam takes the McQueen role of Charrière, a safecracker nicknamed Papillon — “butterfly” in French — both for the distinctive tattoo on his chest and for his ability to flit away when the going gets tough. Not this time. After pulling a job in 1931 Paris, Charrière is eager to leave the criminal world behind for the good life with his girlfriend, Nenette (Eve Hewson). But unlucky Papi gets framed for a mob killing and sent off to a hell worse than Shawshank. There, he links up with runty Louis Dega (Malek), a counterfeiter with cash literally stuffed up his butt. The money is enough to bribe guards but not enough to save him from prison predators — that’s where Papi comes in, offering to act as a bodyguard in exchange for Louis funding his eventual escape. Papi’s efforts soon raise the ire of the sadistic Warden Barrot (a terrific Yorick Van Wageningen), who, after one of Papi’s failed attempts to break free, has him tossed into solitary confinement for a heinous two years.

Noer escalates the tension and the brutality over years of deprivation that culminate when the starved Papi (Hunnam lost 35 pounds for the role) gets out of solitary and plans another escape with Louis that goes haywire. If you’re a glutton for punishment, Papillon might just be your cup of masochism. The original film, directed by Patton Oscar winner Franklin J. Schaffner, let in glimmers of hope that Noer’s version avoids till the end, when Papi and Louis reunite on the remote Devil’s Island. The sight of two broken men, contemplating freedom beyond a sea whose waves could crush them, thunders with the power of resistance against the impossible.

You could excuse the film’s relentlessly grim violence as a comment on the way current-day privatization of prisons veils horrific abuses. But Papillon pushes too hard with diminishing returns. Though Hunnam and Malek give it everything they’ve got, they’re denied the chance to make their characters as indelible as McQueen and Hoffman did. Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, production designer Tom Meyer and composer David Buckley work overtime to provide Noer with the trappings of an epic. But in the process they’ve reduced the two human beings at the center of the action to figures in a landscape, too distant to leave a mark on our hearts and minds.