There’s a reason studios rarely attempt to remake a Steve McQueen movie: nearly 40 years after his death, few contemporary actors can rule a screen with that kind of easy, commanding cool that makes you root for him no matter how dastardly his deeds.
Chris Pratt, knighted by Hollywood as an A-lister despite his dullness, found this out in 2016 with a Magnificent Seven remake that fizzled so hard, it took me multiple Google searches to dredge up its credits.
Now, we can add a new spin on Papillon, the somewhat true telling of the French thief Henri Charrière’s escape from a brutal penal colony, to the pile. In this case, Charlie Hunnam—another serviceable TV actor who’s never quite made it as a movie star—steps into the role as the titular safecracker, so nicknamed for the butterfly tattoo on his chest. Any similarities to McQueen end there.
In the first Papillon, released in 1973, Patton director Franklin J. Schaffner cast a memorable pair in McQueen as Charrière and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega, the weird and twitchy counterfeiter who just might be Papillon’s meal ticket out of a hellish penal colony in what is now French Guiana. Working off a script by Dalton Trumbo, who adapted it from the real Charrière’s 1969 autobiographical novel, Schaffner constructed a tough, brawny prison-buddy tale brimming with charisma right up to the moment Papillon attempts his final escape.
The update has none of that, even as it casts Rami Malek—a contemporary actor who knows how to be weird and twitch as there ever was one—as Dega. And yet it’s unconvincing that this Papillon and this Dega would ever click in the joint.
Hunnam is blandly handsome, unconvincing as a leading man outside a few scenes where he gets to be a brawler, faintly echoing the motorcycle gang boss he played for seven years on Sons of Anarchy. Malek, who in previews looks magnetic as Freddie Mercury in the upcoming biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, spends this movie attempting to transport the tweaky mannerisms that won him an Emmy as an aloof hacker on Mr. Robot to a French penal colony. Why these two would keep coming back to each other for help is a mystery, even in the most brutal of situations.
But that’s one thing that can’t be denied to director Michael Noer, who gives his version of Papillon a gruesomeness more befitting of a tale set in a notorious prison colony that lasted from the French Revolution of 1848 through the mid-20th century. With McQueen and Hoffman at his disposal, Schaffner’s read was darkly romantic. Noer, a Dane making his first English-language feature, can at least be credited with being visually arresting, or at least overwhelming, even if he does little else to get the audience’s emotional investment.
A lusty prologue set in interwar Paris, for instance, is meant to establish Charrière as a suave burglar who slips into women’s beds as easily as he does jewel safes. But mostly, it’s a sequence showing off the crew’s ability to create a lusty dream of interwar Paris.
Once we’re en route to Guiana, though, Noer doesn’t hide his brutality. A self-mutilation here, a disembowelment there, the occasional beheading—Noer shows it all, and maybe prison movies should be studies in the grim horror of the carceral state.
But the Papillon story has fundamentally always been a character study strained through an epic adventure. The real Charrière went to his grave swearing his autobiography was an honest accounting, though historians and critics since have said it’s really a mishmash of many prisoners’ experiences.
Which is why it’s been better told through the gritty, but embellished filter of Charrière’s novel and the 1973 film, which lived off McQueen’s unmatchable coolness and his unexpected chemistry with Hoffman.
In Noer’s remake, the most memorable moments come during Papillon’s years-long interludes in solitary confinement. Hunnam, shaggy and emaciated—he went method for this role, dropping 40 pounds off his normally musclebound frame—paces around his cell in monotony, seemingly realizing, like the audience, what this is: a bore.