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In solid ‘Papillon’ remake, hardships are even harder for brutalized prisoners

Rami Malek (left) and Charlie Hunnam play inmates at a French Guiana penal colony in "Papillon." | BLEECKER STREET

Meet Henri “Papillon” Charriere, a safecracker serving a life sentence in a brutal penal colony in French Guiana in the 1930s after being framed for a murder he did not commit.

Papillon — so nicknamed for the butterfly tattoo on his chest — is smart and scrappy and stubborn.

He is capable of handling himself in bone-cracking brawls with fellow inmates.

He is loyal to the friends he makes in prison, to the point of risking his own life.

He is mentally and spiritually strong enough to somehow survive years of solitary confinement, during which time he is not allowed to make a sound and he is given just enough food and water to remain alive and utterly miserable.

As we watch Papillon endure year after year of brutal treatment and come up with plan after plan for escape, we can’t help but lament:

If only he had been a fraction of this heroic and resourceful on the outside, he never would have wound up on the inside.

Danish director Michael Noer’s “Papillon” is a solid, straightforward, blood-sweat-and-tears remake of the 1973 hit starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, which was a fictionalized adaptation of the 1969 memoir by Charriere. It is an impressively staged and appropriately rain-soaked, mud-splattered, bone-crunching tale, more violent and filled with rougher language than its predecessor, if not quite as powerful or moving.

Former “Sons of Anarchy” star Charlie Hunnam continues his string of fine film work (“Pacific Rim,” “The Lost City of Z”) as Papillon, while Rami Malek (TV’s “Mr. Robot”) plays the fragile and wealthy counterfeiter Louis Dega, who quickly realizes he won’t last a week in prison without attaching himself to Papillon. While Hunnam and Malek don’t match the star power and presence of McQueen and Hoffman, who would?

In an over-the-top opening sequence that plays like a non-musical sequel to “Moulin Rouge,” we see the dashing, handsome, seemingly untouchable safecracker Papillon plying his trade and partying the night away with his beautiful girlfriend Nenette (Eve Hewson). But Papi’s reckless ways incur the wrath of his gangster boss, and bam, just like that, Papi is arrested for murder, tried and convicted — and sent off to spend the rest of his days in the notoriously unforgiving penal colonies of French Guiana on the north Atlantic coast of South America.

As the stereotypically sadistic prison warden (Yorick van Wageningen) says in the speech he delivers to each new batch of prisoners: Go ahead and try to escape. If you’re not shot by the guards you’ll be consumed by the unforgiving jungle. If you somehow make it to the water, the sharks will get ya.

Nevertheless, Papillon enlists the help of Dega (who still has access to a limited amount of cash) to plot his escape.

And after he’s caught, another escape attempt.

And after he’s caught again, another escape attempt.


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The first-rate production design makes us feel as if we’re plunged misery-deep in a sprawling, awful, disease-riddled, nightmare of a prison camp. Hagen Bogdanski’s fluid and mood-appropriate cinematography contrasts the oppressive, muddied browns of the prison and the work camps with the lush and vibrant greens and blues of the seemingly unreachable tropical world just beyond the walls. The memorable score by David Buckley is as dramatically mood-setting as one would expect.

Charlie Hunnam throws himself into the work but never quite loses that movie-star look of blazing white teeth and gym-produced abs, even when Papillon is skeletal thin and bears the bruises and scars from countless beatings. Malek affects a quirky speech pattern and mannerisms to portray the initially smug Dega, who finds his own ways of coping with the hellish world he now inhabits. (Even the great Hoffman at times overdid it in the 1973 film. It’s not one of my favorite Dustin Hoffman performances.)

Most of the prisoners and many of the authority figures (cops, prison warden, guards, even a nun) in “Papillon” are short on humanity, which makes it all the more impressive that Papi and his friend Dega refuse to give up and accept what seems to be inevitable — either a lifetime of misery, or a painful death.

In the case of Papillon, apparently there was no time for self-reflection until he had all the time in the world — and learned he was capable of great resilience and of becoming a better man. His redemption arrives only after nearly unbearable suffering.


Bleecker Street presents a film directed by Michael Noer and written by Aaron Guzikowski, inspired by a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and books by Henry Charriere. Rated R (for violence including bloody images, language, nudity, and some sexual material). Running time: 136 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.