Hollywood conventional wisdom says that if you’re going to remake a movie, it’s better to tackle one that wasn’t very good the first time around. In that sense — and that sense alone — Danish director Michael Noer has succeeded with Papillon. Anyone who’s sat through the 1973 Steve McQueen-Dustin Hoffman prison-escape epic can confirm that it’s one of the snoozier and least memorable entries on either actor’s résumé. As for the new Papillon, it wisely doubles down on high adventure, but it’s still as lifeless as its predecessor. Just in different ways.
With his air of sensitive street-tough menace and abs so defined they resemble an abacus, Charlie Hunnam stars as Henri Charrière — a dashing jewel thief in 1930s Paris who’s framed for murder. Why? Beats me. Nicknamed Papillon, or “Pappi,” after his butterfly tattoo, he’s shipped off to a hellhole of a penal colony in French Guiana off the coast of South America. There he befriends fellow inmate Louis Dega (Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek) — a brainy, bespectacled millionaire who’s helpless and needs protecting. Pappi isn’t some Good Samaritan, though: Dega is loaded, and the money he’s smuggled into prison is their best ticket to escape.
Like the infinitely better Shawshank Redemption, Papillon traces these two poor souls’ friendship over the years through brutal stints in solitary and dashed flights to freedom. But it’s all paced so sluggishly that the film begins to feel like it’s unfolding in real time. So much so that your mind can’t help but drift and ponder such questions as whose idea was it to have Malek play a mime in a dream sequence? Or, more urgently, is Hunnam contractually obligated to go shirtless in all of his movies? Based on the evidence in this unnecessary and uninvolving remake, the answer seems to be an emphatic “yup.” C