The 'Above Average' Escape?
Despite the earnest efforts here, this is an utterly unnecessary remake of the classic Steve McQueen / Dustin Hoffman gem of the same name: Papillon.At times surprisingly stylish, comfortable with its own contemplatively languid pacing, and bolstered by committed performances and reasonable production values, this 2017 feature - buried a year before being released in the UK (unsurprisingly well-timed to coincide with star Remi Malek's acclaimed turn in Bohemian Rhapsody) - Papillon is the very definition of just above average; the kind of feature which you would be pleasantly surprised to see hitting Netflix as an 'Original Movie'.
It's story of a safecracker, nicknamed 'Papillon', who finds himself wrongfully incarcerated for murder and condemned to serve his time on a notorious French penal colony on Devil's Island, where he makes friends with Dega, a rich counterfeiter who needs protection from all those that want to cut him open to get to his money, and the two determine to find some way to escape the island.
Papillon is the definition of just above average; the kind of feature which you would be pleasantly surprised to see hitting Netflix as an 'Original Movie'.
The real-life story of Henri "Papillon" Charrière is the stuff of French legend, novelised in 1969, whereupon a film adaptation was quickly commissioned and the 1973 McQueen-Hoffman pairing was borne. In that same year, however, a 'sequel' book - Banco - was published, expanding on the events that led up to Charrière's incarceration, as well as the events afterward.
Given this 'additional information', it appears not wholly unreasonable to think that - at some point - filmmakers may have wanted to tell a more complete story of Charrière, perhaps as part of a compelling joint French-English TV production; a series which, if successful, could have expanded into the sequel book's territory for a second season.
Unfortunately, the choice to make another feature film adaptation of this story immediately invited trouble from two potential directions - firstly from unfavourable comparisons to the underrated but still classic McQueen/Hoffman original; and secondly from being unable to stand on its own two feet. And, unfortunately, this new Papillon does little to combat either, telling an expanded story whose additional backstory is of no significance whatsoever, and making for an overlong tale which seems unlikely to even slightly interest a whole new Prison Break generation.
Leads, Charlie Hunnam (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Sons of Anarchy) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot, Bohemian Rhapsody) do their best within the production, although they are seldom asked to stretch themselves all that far - Malek lives his whole film and TV career in this fringe persona, so he appears to be positively sleepwalking through it; whilst Hunnam is called upon to show emaciation and be radically aged and worn by conditions, but fails utterly to convince with the look in his eyes, unable to deliver the same natural performance that McQueen and Hoffman did at a time when makeup and effects could do little to help the weathering process.
Both have given the same - and in fact at times even better - performances for their long-running TV work, and whilst it was quite a shock to see a prison-battered McQueen and a bifocal-wearing Hoffman, Hunnam (who has actually done better in small scale work like The Lost City of Z, than his big screen fare) and Malek appear far too comfortable kicking around on this island, with the production environment far too clean to really convince as the notorious Devil's Island.
The project appears perfectly content with being competent when it should at least aspire to be the same kind of classic gem the original was.
Danish director Michael Noer does instil Papillon with some veritable style, right from the opening credits, and there is something to be said to his 'epic' runtime, allowing for plenty of events across the years in this expansive tale of plans for desperate escape turned into a necessity to just desperately survive, giving hopes and opportunities, then frequently dashing them to the rocks and upping the level of torturous conditions to the point where the main character is hallucinating in a dark cell.
Noer - and the film - never quite go far enough, however; always prepared to slink back to normality before the audience can be fully convinced that all hope is lost. It's a safe project, whose production values, as decent as they are for a relatively low budget feature, unfortunately can't compare to the considerable benefits of actually filming 'on location' (as the original film did - as much as it could - finding a location that was so inaccessible that the cost of getting equipment over to film there doubled the budget).
It's easy to see why, after Malek's star turn in Bohemian Rhapsody, this long-buried remake would suddenly appear in theatres to capitalise on his filmic fame; the limited release likely further designed to act as easy free 'advertising' on the way to a more lucrative home release early in the new year. But what's really frustrating is that the project could have made for a much more interesting TV series - perhaps even with these same stars - rather than this half-hearted affair which appears perfectly content with being merely competent when it should at least aspire to be the same kind of classic gem the original was.
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