What do you look for in a remake of a beloved film? Do you go in hoping to recapture the original movie’s magic and even a sweet hit of nostalgia? Or do you keep your old feelings in check, allowing the new picture to entertain you on its own terms? These questions are worth bearing in mind as you watch Papillon, director Michael Noer’s remake of the 1973 classic.
The original won over audiences with two memorable performances from movie industry royalty. Hollywood heavyweights Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman’s work in Papillon set a high bar for today’s up-and-coming talent to clear. But that doesn’t mean the youngsters shouldn’t try. And with two rising stars headlining this new take, Papillon version 2.0, at least stands a fighting chance.
Henri ‘Papillon’ Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) is a thief who picks locks as easily as pre-schoolers pick their noses. We meet Papi while he is out on a heist, stealing a set of diamonds without breaking a sweat. When Papi shows up to collect his loot from the gangster who hired him, he finds a couple thugs torturing some poor schmoe. The next morning, police burst into Papi’s room and charge him with murder. That poor schmoe, it turns out, wound up dead, and someone framed Papi for the crime. Probably because he lifted a few extra jewels.
A judge slaps Papi with a life sentence and ships him off to a prison colony in French New Guinea; an inescapable hell-hole surrounded by armed guards, a vicious jungle, and an ocean full of hungry sharks. Facing a life-sentence, Papi has no F#<ks left to give, so he teams up with Louis (Rami Malek), a white-collar crook who isn’t equipped for life on the inside. Louis smuggled in a “buttload” of cash and has the means to fund Papi’s breakout. Together, they scheme to escape prison in something other than a body bag.
If you’re into the technical aspects of filmmaking, Papillon has lots going for it: dynamic camera movement, crisp sound design, and exquisite attention to detail in costume and production design. Even excluding Papillon’s plot, I found almost every minute engaging. So, as the movie shows its blemishes you still feel like you’re in the hands of a competent filmmaker.
The story begins in France during the early 30’s and the opening moments feel like low-grade Baz Luhrmann (the Moulin Rouge even makes an appearance). The camera revels in the carnival atmosphere as drunk party-goers bustle through the packed streets. Once indoors, the world becomes a carnal cabaret. Topless dancers shake, and shimmy, champagne splashes, and live jazz rattle the senses. These early moments look as though Noer lifted them from a dream, which makes us feel Papi’s grief once he’s forced to leave it all behind. How much can viewers care about Papi’s struggle to escape if we don’t understand what he is fighting to get back to?
Papillon’s vibrancy meter drops from 100 to about 12 once Papi ships off to French New Guinea. The prison camp sucks the life out of its prisoners and in turn, leeches the warmth from the film’s colour palette. As the colours shift to depressing greys, beiges, and navy blues, Noer even makes the blazing French New Guinea sun feel cold. And the film plays no trick as cruel as bringing back warm vibrant colours when Papi catches glimpses of freedom. The visual clash is like Dorothy stuck in Kansas and looking at Oz off in the distance.
Hunnam and Malek both have long-term Hollywood A-lister potential and its exciting to see them headline the same film. On paper, both men are ripe for Papillon’s lead roles. Hunnam, both a slick ladies’ man and intimidating brute; Malek as threatening as a willow branch and not used to getting dirt under his nails. So, I find it baffling that this sure-fire duo comes up short.
You couldn’t ask Hunnam for a better leading man performance. He makes his turn as Papi look effortless. Hunnam sells all of Papi’s conflicting traits, shifting from hardened tough guy to gentle, empathetic, and self-sacrificing. He taps into Papi’s range of emotions like a painter dipping into every colour on their palette. By the end of the film, Papi’s inner-journey feels earned and not cobbled together to service the plot. In the hands of a less-nuanced performer, this transformation could come off as forced. But not in Hunnam’s capable hands.
Malek’s performance is not on Hunnam’s level. To put it bluntly: I don’t think it’s very good. I see what Malek is trying to do with this stiff, out of his element character. Malek makes some interesting acting choices but he never tunes into Hunnam’s wavelength. His forceful performance feels too heightened, and I often lost sight of the character’s humanity. I accepted Louis and Papi’s partnership but never their friendship, which takes the air out of this movie’s sails.
You won’t find many films grittier and more violent than Papillon. Prisoners gut each other, the warden beheads a man, and desperate inmates muck about in their own excrement. Papillon isn’t a nonstop gorefest but it peppers in cruelty and extreme violence along the way, and the images leave a lasting impression. Pass on this film if you’re sensitive towards violence.
Papillon pivots during the last ten minutes and veers off into Oscar-bate territory. The music swells, title cards pop up, and we’re shown images from the real-life prison colony that inspired the movie. After sitting through a hyper-violent thriller, the changeup causes a jarring tonal shift. It feels like Papillon is cheating, tacking on an ending that provides an emotional high that the rest of the film doesn’t warrant.
Papillon is a mostly entertaining film that gets tripped up by its own ambition. It should have gone all in on the pulpy thriller elements or softened the violence and ran with the superhuman perseverance narrative that the award voters eat up. It’s not as riveting as it thinks it or as serious as it wants to be taken.
If you were hoping for the second coming of Papillon 1973, this latest version doesn’t come close. But if you go in and greet this new version on its own terms, you’ll find a solid, if unspectacular film. Hunnam shines and Malek really goes for it; he’s a compelling watch even as his bold choices don’t always work. And although Papillon drags in places, the intense action and gruesome violence provide enough oomph to jolt you back into the moment. Papillon 2017 is no threat to usurp the king but I’m glad that it reached for the crown.