Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek front the second movie adaptation of Henri Charriere’s bestselling autobiographical novel.
Movie remakes are commonplace nowadays, and they don’t always have to be bad.
Look at Bradley Cooper’s take on A Star Is Born, a film which has been critically lauded and tipped for awards success in spite of the fact the story has been told three times before. However, as many moviemakers are guilty of bringing nothing new to the original source material, remakes typically get a bad rap.
The latest Hollywood reimagining comes courtesy of director Michael Noer with Papillon, based on Henri Charriere’s bestselling autobiographical novel and first brought to the screen by Franklin J. Schaffner in 1973. Though there has been some debate over the authenticity of Charriere’s prison escape tale, Noer’s version allows a new generation to bear witness to what is an awe-inspiring story. However, fans of the original picture starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman may not appreciate this watered-down retelling.
This time Charlie Hunnam plays Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere, who is nicknamed as such thanks to the distinctive butterfly tattoo on his chest. He has been sentenced to life imprisonment within the brutal penal system in French Guiana having been convicted of murdering a pimp – though he is adamant he’s been framed for the crime.
Papillon is planning his escape from the moment he’s locked up, and believes he’s found his ticket out of there when he learns of fellow prisoner, millionaire Louis Dega (Rami Malek). With the other inmates waiting for any opportunity to slice Dega open and pinch all the cash he’s smuggled inside of him, Papillon offers to protect him if he will underwrite his escape. As a result, the pair become inseparable and forge a friendship within the horrific confines of the colony, while both dream of the day they will be free.
This isn’t a film for the squeamish as there is plenty of blood and guts with the most extreme scenes showing decapitations and disembowelment, among other things. The previous Papillon was pretty gory, but this one may be even more so. However, while upping the violence makes for a more entertaining watch to some degree, Noer’s feature lacks the overwhelming sense of despair at the heart of the 1973 film.
The two Papillons differ in plot somewhat, and Noer’s version feels more like an adventure story, which may appeal to viewers who want to hear Charriere’s story but without the emotional slog. Some of the toughest scenes from the previous iteration have been removed, changed or shortened this time round, meaning you don’t feel the same degree of compassion for Hunnam as you did for McQueen. Though the former gives the role his all and delivers a solid performance, he doesn’t evoke any of the increasing madness and crippling desperation of his predecessor – who earned a Golden Globe nomination in 1974 for his portrayal.
This film focuses more on the friendship between Papillon and Dega, and Hunnam and Malek do create many uplifting heartwarming scenes. But at 133 minutes, this film is far too long and their relationship isn’t enough to keep things interesting. There are lots of needless scenes, and unfortunately this Papillon doesn’t have the emotional grip to stop you from looking away.
It may be worth a watch if this is your first Papillon experience, but as it lacks the shock and grimness Charriere’s story needs, this long-winded tale will probably feel empty.
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