Rated R. Score: 2 ** Out of 4**** Stars
While there are a handful of excellent remakes of bad films (the 1978 version "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "The Fly," "Ocean’s Eleven," "True Grit"), most of the time Hollywood takes a very good movie and churns out pure rubbish. Not only do most of these retreads ("Psycho," "Ben-Hur" "The Pink Panther," "Footloose," "The Stepford Wives," "Arthur") stink — all of them loose money.
The exact budget for this new "Papillon" has not been disclosed, but based on the production values (which are excellent) it looks to be in the $60-$75 million range.
Unless a whole bunch of people suddenly develop a taste for bleak prison-break flicks, it will be very lucky to get close to breaking even. Add to that a crushing 135 minute running time and a lack of bankable stars and the final take could land deep in the red.
What makes the "Papillon" situation different than most is that the 1973 original isn’t the classic it’s often made out to be and a complete overhaul in time and place (as with "Snatchers" and "The Fly") could have resulted in something more than an excessively gory replica. Some people enamored with the first are fond of it largely because it featured a bona-fide legend (Steve McQueen) and another (Dustin Hoffman) in mid-flight on his way to superstardom.
In their place we get Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malik, two admittedly talented guys known mostly thus far to fans of cult TV shows (although things could change in a big way come November for Malik who will be playing the late Freddie Mercury in the Queen bio-drama "Bohemian Rhapsody").
Henri Charriere (Hunnam, baring more than a strong physical resemblance to McQueen) was a safecracker living the high life in late 1920s Paris and was wrongly convicted for murder and sent to a fetid penal colony in French Guiana where he met Louis Dega (Malik), a diminutive forger who had recently fleeced many French citizens with counterfeit bonds. Perhaps sensing prison life wouldn’t be kind to a man of his slight size and reputation, Dega hid lots of cash not on him but rather . . . um, in him.
Recognizing Dega’s urgent security needs, Charrier – nicknamed Papillon (French for "butterfly") because of a prominent tattoo — offered him a deal. Charrier would protect him in exchange for money to procure an escape boat. What started out as a strict business arrangement eventually morphed into a casual not-quite friendship and said escape could have panned out had Charrier been a tad more patient.
Flat-out ignoring the blunt and impossible-to-misunderstand "welcoming" instructions laid out by the no-nonsense Warden Barrot (an appropriately hateful Yorick van Wageningen), Charrier tries to bolt and is put into solitary confinement for two years.
Due to receiving contraband food, the stint is made worse by the shrouding Charrier’s cell in darkness. Beaten down but not broken, Charrier — a man who hates anyone to tell him what to do — tries to leave again and is successful, but not permanently.
Starting at about the halfway point, this section of the film dedicated to the second escape fares the best, thanks in large part to leaving the grey and gun-blue prison for the “great outdoors.” If for no other reason, everything looks better, the pace finally picks up and the narrative from Aaron Guzikowski ("Prisoners" — oddly not a prison movie) suggests some minor ray of hope, however fleeting.
No stranger to bleak and cloistered, Danish director Michael Noer ("R," "Northwest") had few options on how to proceed given that Guzikowski’s screenplay variates little from Dalton Trumbo’s original. The story – which many believe the real Charrier heavily "embellished" — is far too grim and plodding for most audiences but straying too far from it would certainly incur the wrath — however unwarranted — from pesky purists.
What could have possibly worked out better – at least from an originality viewpoint – would have been to retain only the most minimum of plot details and use them as the foundational blueprint for a purely fictional drama. It’s unlikely any filmmakers could ever come up with anything near as great as "The Shawshank Redemption," "Cool Hand Luke" or "The Great Escape" (also starring McQueen) but maybe something along the lines of "American History X" or "The Green Mile."
Sometimes it’s just better to leave well enough alone.
Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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