While details are disputed, the story of Henri 'Papillon' Charrière is unquestionably one of the most remarkable "true" tales of all time - stunningly showcasing what the human spirit can endure if the will is strong enough. This was immediately understood when the thief and former prisoner had his autobiography published in 1969, and there is no further proof needed of its acceptance than the cinematic adaptation that hit theaters four years later. Directed by Planet of the Apes' Franklin J. Schaffner, and starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, Papillon is a stunning and epic journey of torture, courage, and escape, brought to life with perfect lead performances, beautiful cinematography, and a heralded score. It's one of those perfect examples of a classic adventure with little need of an update so long as the original is still available - but yet here we are.
Upfront, it's clear that director Michael Noer's new take does not exist to try and break the wheel. While the new Papillon is nearly 20 minutes shorter than its predecessor, it hits all the same big beats, and given the story and setting, it's not exactly the kind of feature you improve visually with cutting edge visual effects. The main drive to make the movie seems like it's just an opportunity to retell a brilliant tale with fresh faces... and in a vacuum, it does mostly work. This time around it's Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in the parts played by Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, respectively, and it's particularly the success of the duo and their on-screen chemistry that drives the film and fully engages you in the incredible narrative.
Beginning in the early 1930s, Papillon stars with its titular protagonist (Charlie Hunnam) living his life as a low-level but notorious burglar in France with aspirations of escaping with his love (Eve Hewson). Unfortunately, he winds up stealing from the wrong man, and quickly finds himself the center of a frame job - arrested and found guilty for the murder of a local pimp. Rather than standard imprisonment, the safecracker is instead sent to a South American penal colony - specifically a mine on Devil's Island in French Guiana - where he is expected to break and cart rocks for the rest of his life. It's not a life that Papillon is willing to lead, however, and even before his arrival to the island, he begins to plan his escape.
Papillon's first most crucial move is acquiring resources in order to get the things he needs - and he finds a perfect target for this in Louis Dega (Rami Malek). A bookish, bespectacled, weakling convicted of counterfeiting, Dega is recognized among the prisoners as being rich, but has no way to protect himself and his money (stored in the ol' prison wallet). Our protagonist sees an opportunity here, and makes his fellow inmate a deal: in exchange for protection, Dega will fund Papillon's way off the island. As he winds up learning the hard way, the punishment for attempting to escape is not days, weeks, or months, but instead years spent in silent solitary confinement - but the resilient thief is able to power through in large part because of the friendship that grows between himself and Dega.
Because of the nature of a story centering on confirmed criminals, Papillon does have to work a bit to get you on the side of its two leads, but that's exactly why you hire two actors the caliber of Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek - with Hunnam carrying most of the weight as the titular lead. The British star is all charm and charisma up front, getting you on his side with flashy smiles, cool wit, and dreams of more, and you appreciate his determination as he is planning his big exit on the high seas. Where it really becomes a great performance, however, is after the experience of confinement really starts to weigh on Papillon. Benefited with a tough, on-location production and an in-sequence shooting schedule, Hunnam does a tremendous job projecting the intense emotional toll while always shining a bright light through it.
On the other side, Louis Dega may not sound like a terribly complex role to portray (the nerdy money man), but Rami Malek brings wonderful layers to him that might otherwise go unplayed. The start of his arc comes with introversion, fear, and a touch of desperation, but there is a great evolution discovered through Dega's relationship with Papillon. The former ultimately inspires the latter to keep fighting - to a remarkable extent - and it very much turns back around, as the third act finds Malek delivering confidence, passion, and strength that is very much missing from first.
There is a strange contrast to occasionally be found as the beauty of the landscape is sometimes oddly juxtaposed with the harshness of the prison colony experience, but it should be recognized that Michael Noer also doesn't undersell the brutality of it all. There are many toe-curling scenes of violence shot in nightmarish darkness, and the scenes with Papillon in solitary - the hero sometimes driven to hallucination - are haunting. The movie marks the first title made by Noer outside of his native Denmark, and it's a solid start to a Hollywood career with potential.
With the 1973 original not going anywhere, this remake has to be called the second best Papillon film - but it has its merits. Both Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek are evolving into fantastic performers with excellent careers ahead of them, and there is a lot here that showcases what they can do. And if it takes their work to potentially get a new audience to discover this story, that's a plus as well.