Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 film Papillon was mostly a vehicle for its star, the ever-cool Steve McQueen, as well as a cash-in adaptation of the popular memoir of the same name by Henri Charrière. It’s a shaggy hybrid of prison-escape drama and adventure movie that spans several years’ worth of breakout efforts. The film’s popularity grossly exceeded its artistic merit, so a case for a new adaptation could be made by updating the narrative with greater depth, a unique cinematic vision, and/or more propulsive action setpieces. Director Michael Noer’s new adaptation contains none of these, preferring to sand down the idiosyncrasies of the original film’s characters and transform them into superhero ciphers. This updated Papillon alternates between scenes of grandiose pretense and achingly dull macho posturing.
Viewers wondering about the necessity of a new adaptation should be clued in by the based-on credit given to the original source novel and the 1973 film’s screenplay. It smacks of fandom gone wrong, an uninspired attempt to expand the “universe” of the story as a sop toward an increasingly obscure fanbase. It also teeters in the direction of awards baiting, polishing the pulpy source material to prop up its self-important “triumph of the human spirit” ambitions. Unfortunately, in attempting both approaches, the story and its characters are stretched so thin that they no longer resemble real human experience or flesh-and-blood humans.
Although it includes new material from Charrière’s other biographical novel, Banco, to bookend the escape story with additional context, this adaptation is slavishly faithful to the beats of the original film. Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) is a safe-cracker in Paris in 1931. During a job for some gangster types, he pilfers a few diamonds for himself and his girlfriend (Eve Hewson), landing him in a frame for murder. The love interest invented for this version of the story is particularly underdeveloped, as though the titular character needed a motivation to escape prison beyond fear of enslavement or death.
These scenes are rushed, the filmmakers seemingly only interested in the red meat of the story: Papillon’s years-long attempt at escape. After his trial — which Noer’s film elides — the unlucky thief is sentenced to life at a penal labor colony in French Guiana. This hellish place is a repository for France’s most dangerous criminals and staffed by equally dangerous prison guards under the command of a control-hungry warden played by Yorick van Wageningen. Papillon clings to the wealthy, bookish Louis Dega (Rami Malek), convincing the sly white-collar criminal that, in return for financing their escape from the prison, he’ll provide the protection an easy target like Dega needs. For all of its artistic shortcomings, this Papillon is still watchable, mostly due to the solid narrative bones underlying any iteration of this familiar story.
Papillon seems to gain superhuman skills throughout, easily fending off antagonists twice his size in a flurry of well-choreographed but hardly believable feats of strength. Papillon doesn’t shy away from brutal violence when depicting the lives of these hardened criminals, as announced by an early scene of disembowelment to extract some funds from the stomach of a wealthy but weak inmate. Pairing this gore with the carefully executed display of man-on-man action makes for particularly queasy thematization of the role of violence in this penal system. The film seemingly wants viewers to be repelled by it, and yet it also invites them to cheer when the hero triumphantly plows through five hulking heavies. No humanity for the Bad Guys here.
Speaking of man-on-man action, there is inevitably a streak of homoeroticism at the heart of this all-male prison story, as evidenced by the aforementioned scene, a nude brawl that takes place in the showers. It’s too bad that the filmmakers can’t commit to this subversiveness, pulling back from the sort of masculine eroticism on display in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (2000), with its all-male cast sweltering under the desert sun. Papillon has the opportunity to explore this tension, highlighting as it does the unending loyalty forged between Papillon and Dega over the course of three failed escape attempts — a bond just shy of romantic love. Meanwhile, the film depicts its single, brief glimpse of gay sex as repellent, framing it as a unpleasant compromise an inmate makes to escape. Still, Papillon and Louis retain a platonic yet passionate connection that is unbreakable through bouts of solitary confinement and eventual exile to Devil’s Island, a barren rock where the worst prisoners are dumped to fend for themselves.
The performers can’t quite sell this passion, though. Hunnam is fresh off James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2017), a much more adventurous film about the stops and starts of an obsessive journey. His presence here begs the question as to whether his remarkable performance in Gray’s film was just a fluke after years of wooden delivery and an over-reliance on his placid charm. Here, he more closely resembles the gung-ho American Jaeger pilot he portrayed in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013). For some reason, the English actor resurrects the same gravelly John Wayne impression-slash-American accent that he affected in that film. Malek is the more capable performer, but he, too, insists on an impression, mimicking the 1973 portrayal of Degas by Dustin Hoffman — who was already riffing on his own nasally Ratso voice from Midnight Cowboy (1969). If Hunnam and Malek are this generation’s McQueen and Hoffman, there is something to be said about the death of the Hollywood star.
Malek’s vocal performance choice is strikingly odd in a film full of odd choices — all seemingly borrowed from disparate places. Noer’s images are quite often Malickian in composition and movement, but they possess none of the spiritual or earthly depth that characterize the latter director’s works. Instead, they seem primly and self-consciously posed, as silly as Malek’s wig in the last section of the film. Papillon repurposes beats from other sources, but never coheres them into a unified artistic vision, and the film suffers for that dereliction. It plays like Grandpa’s Favorite Movie reheated to make it palatable for a new generation, rendering it all the more uninteresting in the process.