A petty criminal convicted of murder (wrongly, he claimed), Henri “Papillon” Charrière published his story in 1970, captivating French readers with his account of his brutal prison term in French Guiana and his escape from the internment camp at Devil’s Island. Shortly after that, his story — which he copped to being “75 percent true” — was made into a film, an overpraised bore starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. The remake that comes out this week, also called Papillon, seems unlikely to meet that fate, mostly because it’s not likely to garner much praise in the first place.
Charlie Hunnam portrays the title character, nicknamed because he has a butterfly tattoo on his chest. A gentleman jewel thief, gambler, and habitué of Paris’ demi-monde in the 1930s, he’s framed for murder by a mob boss (Christopher Fairbank) after he’s found pocketing some trinkets for himself. He’s shipped to South America to work hard labor in inhumane conditions, so he gloms onto Louis Dega (Rami Malek), a bespectacled millionaire counterfeiter with poor prospects for surviving in prison. Papi offers Louis protection in exchange for the businessman funding his escape attempt.
The main challenge here isn’t all these French characters being played by actors from seemingly every country except France, nor is it the puzzling decision to have those actors play the early scenes like they’re in a 1930s Hollywood gangster movie. No, the trouble is capturing the tedium of prison life in a story that stretches out more than a decade while also giving the audience enough thrills to carry them through the tedium, not to mention the unremitting brutality inflicted by guards, inmates, and a genteely sadistic warden (Yorick van Wageningen). This can be done: The great French filmmaker Robert Bresson pulled it off in 1956 with a movie called A Man Escaped, telling the story of a Resistance fighter escaping the Nazis in a spellbindingly slow manner. Hardly anyone could do a halfway convincing impression of Bresson now, so it’s hard to fault Danish director Michael Noer for failing to do that. Yet it’s hard to ignore how uninspired his treatment is, how little he brings to the hallucinations Papillon suffers while confined to solitary or the jailbreak sequence involving drugged anisette and an outdoor screening of King Kong.
Fans of TV’s Sons of Anarchy or Mr. Robot may be drawn to this by the stars of those shows playing out what’s effectively a love story between two men. Yet there’s little chemistry between Hunnam and Malek, and the only time either of them catches fire is when Louis is driven to kill a fellow inmate to protect Papi. Whether you’re looking to this as a prison-break film, a psychological study, or a platonic romance, Papillon turns into a well-meaning slog.
Starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek. Directed by Michael Noer. Written by Aaron Guzikowski, based on Henri Charrière’s memoirs and Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s screenplay. Rated R.