[Screen It]


(2018) (Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek) (R)

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Drama: After being framed for a murder he didn't commit, a 1930s era safecracker attempts to escape from the notorious French Guiana prison where he's been sent.
It's the 1930s and Henri 'Papillon' Charrière (CHARLIE HUNNAM) is a safecracker operating in Paris for a mobster. When he keeps a few stolen diamonds for his girlfriend, that mobster has Papillon framed for a murder he didn't commit. With no way to prove his innocence, his sentence results in him being shipped off to a prison in French Guiana.

There, Warden Barrot (YORICK VAN WAGENINGEN) informs him and the rest of the new inmates -- that includes counterfeiter Louis Dega (RAMI MALEK) -- that any attempt to escape will likely result in being shot to death or two years in solitary confinement for the first offense and another five for a second.

Realizing money is the only real power and knowing Louis probably has some smuggled inside his body, Papillon offers to provide protection to the much smaller -- and thus more vulnerable -- man in exchange for funding to help his escape. Louis reluctantly agrees, but Papillon's initial attempt fails and he gets two years of solitary.

Undeterred by that or the risks of trying again, he hatches another plot upon the end of that first period, one that not only involves Louis, but also fellow prisoners Celier (ROLAND MOLLER) and the much younger Maturette (JOEL BASMAN).

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Nowadays, people take the plethora of movie viewing options for granted. No longer being a prisoner of having to do it the old-fashioned way of actually going to a theater, you can watch movies pretty much anywhere, whenever you want, and on any number of devices. Back when I was growing up, the only two options were theaters and then heavily edited versions of movies that showed up on broadcast TV.

And then along came cable, and while there was no on demand service in the 1970s, I suddenly had access to hundreds of movies I hadn't seen before, and I eagerly awaited the little pamphlets that HBO and Cinemax would send out to subscribers detailing what "new" movies would next be available.

One of the films I'd never heard of but ended up capturing my attention was "Papillon." Perhaps because I was already familiar with its stars -- Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman -- I sat down eager to take in the prison drama. I do recall liking it, but since it's been around forty years since I last saw it, I only really remember the scenes of McQueen's character going crazy in solitary and pulling out one (and maybe more) rotted tooth in a weakened, delusional state.

Since my memories are vague at best and it's likely that 99% of today's viewers have probably never even heard of the film -- as I don't think I've ever stumbled across it again on TV -- I relaxed my usual rule of automatically having a certain level of disdain for any remake and sat down with an open mind to watch this one.

Like its predecessor, it's based on Henri Charrière's "Papillon" and "Banco" (which I have not read) and follows the trials and tribulations of an especially arduous prison stint for the title character (Charlie Hunnam getting the unenviable role of following in McQueen's footsteps), a 1930s era safecracker who's framed for a murder he knew nothing about.

Director Michael Noer -- working from a screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski -- zips through all of that rather quickly in an early sequence and directorial and editing style that doesn't really fit in with the rest of what follows once the prison die has been cast.

Things then settle down once Papillion has set sail, so to speak, with a large number of other convicts for French Guiana and a particularly notorious prison located there. Knowing that cash is king and the only real power inside such a place, Papillion offers to help protect a much smaller man (Rami Malek, taking over the Hoffman role) in exchange for that counterfeiter financing his escape attempt needs.

What follows is pretty standard prison movie stuff including the stern and menacingly polite warden (Yorick van Wageningen); the tough inmate (Roland Møller) who may or may not be an ally; other menacing and dangerous prisoners; plotting and attempting to escape; and the psychological toll of being incarcerated in such a place.

All of which we've seen before in related genre pics, and sometimes done far, far better (as was the case with "The Shawshank Redemption"). Despite that, some pacing issues, and the fact that it's a remake when people making movies should be handling original rather than recycled properties, what's present works okay enough to earn a slight recommendation. That said, one can't help but get the impression that this could have been so much more captivating and engaging. Hunnam and especially Malek are good in their roles and their platonic chemistry together, and certain scenes work quite well on their own. But too much of the film feels like it's going through the motions -- of either repeating what the original film offered or simply ticking off the various high and low points of the real story -- rather than having things appear to flow organically.

All of which means that in another forty years or so it's likely those who happened to see this upon its initial release won't have much more than scant memories of it, much like me with the original. "Papillon" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 21, 2018 / Posted August 24, 2018

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