When Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman tried to escape Devil’s Island back in 1973, the result was the messy, passionate, and watchable "Papillon."
The decision to remake "Papillon" in this day and age is a rather odd one, especially given the fact that a) these sort of prison escape flicks are a dime a dozen and are steeped in common genre clichés, and b) well, the original "Papillon" wasn't that great.
Nevertheless, here we are with a remake of the popular 1973 film in our hands. Replacing McQueen and Hoffman as the two dehumanized prisoners brought down to their very last breath of hope in a remote colonial French prison, are Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek. Both are immense, up and coming talents at the movies.
Hunnam is Charrière, nicknamed Papillon (French for 'Butterfly'), a grifter who gets framed for a mob killing and is put through brutal imprisonment in the process. There he meets scrawny Louis Dega (Malek), a numbers genius who could help him escape with his wits. Papi decides to offer Louis protection from all the lurking predators looking to take advantage of his tiny frame, in exchange for Louis' talent for numbers, and a portion of the cash he is secretly hiding in his shank. Louis also wants in with Papi on getting the hell out of there.
If Papi and Louis' attempt at escape fails, they both will have to deal with the wrath and terror that is Warden Barrot (Yorick Van Wageningen), a man who will not hesitate to throw you into solitary confinement for two years straight if caught in the act. Oh, and don't even dare hurt one of his prison guards, an act that could lead you straight to the prison guillotine, where Barrot uses the slice machine on his victims as the prisoners are forced to attend the ceremony.
"Papillon" is based on the 1969 memoirs of Henri Charrière, a man whose story is almost too crazy to believe if it weren't for the fact that it actually happened. Danish director Michael Noer takes his remarkable true story, from a script by Aaron Guzikowski, and sweeps us along, with barely any boredom or lulls, despite the fact that nothing particularly special or above-average really happens throughout.
"Papillon" was always more than just a "prison escape flick". The original, and this remake as well, dealt with themes of redemption, isolation, and masculinity. The ongoing brutality that Papi and Louis endure does feel a little less like a macho endurance test than the original, especially when compared to the machismo of Steve McQueen. Hunmann, in comparison, is subtler in his approach of Papi's manhood.
There are numerous attempts at escape in "Papillon," but with each failed one, and a few stints in solitary confinement, Papi refuses to lose his persistence and continuously attempts it all over again. The torture that Papi consequentially endures for every failed attempt is grotesque, to the point where it really begins to feel like Noer is pushing the boundaries of torture a little too persistently.
The 1973 original, directed by "Patton" Oscar winner Franklin J. Schaffner, felt like a much lighter affair with even a few light touches of humor here and there. The remake, in comparison, is served black. Hunnam and Malek are commendable in their respective roles, which demand openly physical and draining acting, but the film, although it never necessarily loses your attention, feels unimportant, with the most looming question still being asked at the very end of its 132 minute running time: Why even remake "Papillon" to begin with? Doer doesn't seem to be giving us a clear answer here. [C+]