Should a prison movie feel like a life sentence? That was the question posed to audiences in 1973 by the original ‘Papillon’, which took the two hottest stars of the day, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, and threw them in a French Guiana jail to eat bugs for two and a half hours. The whole affair seemed like a stunt; dads loved the elephantine film, but there was no denying how stultifying the experience was.
Amazingly, the remake – by Danish director Michael Noer – is nearly as long and equally as depressing. But he’s made a slightly more exciting movie. Since the first film’s screenplay (by Hollywood legends Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.) is treated like a holy text and paid enormous fidelity, even down to specific lines of dialogue, the improvement must be credited to the actors, digging into the muck.
‘The Lost City of Z’s Charlie Hunnam takes on the McQueen role of Henri Charrière, a tattooed tough guy (and real-life escapee) who has dreamed of freedom for decades. Hunnam is far more wet-eyed and emotive than the stoic Bullitt star, and in this drab context it helps. ‘Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek, meanwhile, pulls off the brainy, fragile sidekick Louis Dega without recourse to Hoffman’s Method tics.
You’re still talking about an endurance test, though, and today’s ‘Papillon’ is lacking its forebear’s sweaty atmosphere, along with Jerry Goldsmith’s gorgeous orchestral score. But as a testament to basic human impulses and needs, it delivers on the grandeur, despite the pink pajamas.