How do you film a movie about the infamous jungle prison colony of French Guiana in Serbia and Malta, which have no jungle?
Badly and cheaply, it turns out.
“Papillon” was a best selling if largely discredited autobiography of French criminal and escaped convict Henri Charrière, one of the publishing sensations of the ’70s.
A tale of endurance, survival and inhuman cruelty, I must have read it 25 times in my high school years. It became a sturdy Franklin J. Schaffner epic starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman and every character actor Hollywood had on hand back in 1973.
The new “Papillon” was directed by the Dane Michael Noer (“R”), who is no Franklin J. Schaffner (“Patton”) it turns out. And it stars Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek, who know they’re no McQueen and Hoffman and should have avoided this pointless, note-for-note, almost scene-for-scene photocopy of the original film.
Hunnam has the title role, and in the film’s unneeded opening scenes, we see him in the life that put him in the French prison system. He was a safe cracker, with a hooker-girlfriend (Eve Hewson), framed for a murder he did not commit.
The original script left some mystery about Charriere, who had a butterfly tattoo on his chest (“Papillon” in French), who was a criminal and pretty much a pathological liar. But no, let’s strip that mystery away from him.
Malek of TV’s “Mr. Robot” and the upcoming “Bohemian Rhapsody” Freddie Mercury bio-pic, is Louis Degas, a forger who got rich selling fake government bonds, which made him enemies far and wide.
You remember the set-up, the shrimp who lived well and avoided jail needs protection from the hardened criminal Papillon, and they stick together, more or less, through decades of imprisonment, murderous assaults and escape attempts, winding up on Devil’s Island, the most notorious of the prisons of French Guiana, a remote, shark-surrounded rock from which there was no escape.
Well, not according to Charrière.
The book’s shock value, its vivid depiction of the violence and the novel way inmates had of storing their valuables (a tube, called “a plan,” shoved up your rectum, because “A man had to have a plan.”) has been updated in the new film.
And to be absolutely fair, the rocky isles off the northern coast of Latin America can be desert-dry, like Malta. Curacao, which I’ve visited, is not far removed from from Cayenne (Devil’s Island) in geography and climate, and is arid and rocky.
But that’s about all one can say for this malnourished remake, a real Bleecker Street debacle.
The supporting cast, aside from Tommy Flanagan as a grizzled fellow inmate, is seriously cut-rate, folks who wouldn’t mind a Serbian/Maltese vacation. Yorick van Wageningen, for instance, plays the callous warden. Funny in “The Way,” a not-quite-horrific heavy in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” he doesn’t eviscerate hope with his wooden, half-hearted threats.
“Keeping you is no benefit, destroying you is no loss.”
Hunnam is game enough, a tough guy from TV’s “Sons of Anarchy” who has made plenty of regrettable big screen choices (“Pacific Rim” was a woebegone hit, “King Arthur” and pretty much every thing else deservedly a bomb). He isn’t the most charismatic screen presence, however — blandly pretty, inexpressive.
Malek is a dull big screen presence in this, none of the twitchy nervousness Hoffman brought to this part makes it into his interpretation, none of the guile or hard life-and-death calculations cross his bespectacled eyes when he says “I have trouble seeing hope in hopelessness.”
For all the period detail, characters are a little too healthy and well-scrubbed to be convincing and the actual look of the film is video-flat and dull — ugly. Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski did “The Young Victoria” and “The Physician,” but here — there’s no contrast to the lighting, no menace in the darkness. It’s a real “throw up your hands and collect a check” job, as if he saw the production design and gave up.
My over-riding gripe with this is that they relied so heavily on the original film’s script by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and didn’t really dig into the books (“Banco” was Charrière’s further tales of Papillon memoir).
And by “they” I mean screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, who when he rewrote the Icelandic hit “Contraband” for Mark Wahlberg, at least got a decent thriller out of it. This is the laziest cut and paste job imaginable. Why even take the credit?
MPAA Rating: R for violence including bloody images, language, nudity, and some sexual material
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Eve Hewson, Tommy Flanagan, Yorik van Wageningen
Credits:Directed by Michael Noer, script by Aaron Guzikowski, based on the Dalton Trumbo/Lorenzo Semple Jr. 1973 film script and the book by Henri Charrière. A Bleecker St. release.
Running time: 2:13