Papillon ✮✮1/2

A Cooler King?

by Glenn Lovell

So what if Henri Charrière’s 1969 memoir “Papillon” was attacked upon publication as pulp fiction, the Gallic equivalent of a Mark Twain whopper. The chronicle of a Paris thief who, in 1933, is framed for murder and sentenced first to a penal colony in French Guiana and then the dreaded Devil’s Island has it all — sex, torture, paternalistic warden, sadistic guards, increasingly audacious escapes, showy prison-yard executions (by guillotine, of course).

And at its core is the unlikely bond between Charrière, who (to quote “Cool Hand Luke”) has “rabbit in his blood,” and a nervous, google-eyed forger named Louis Dega.

Here is another testament to Man’s Indomitable Spirit in the face of impossible oPapPicdds — “Les Miz” meets “Escape from Alcatraz,” if you will.

Not surprisingly “Papillon” (French for butterfly and Henri’s underworld handle) became a huge international bestseller, soon to be adapted as an offbeat vehicle for Steve McQueen. A fussy Dustin Hoffman, looking to hone his Method chops, donned Coke-bottle wire-rims to become the fretful Dega. Franklin J. Schaffner, known for “Patton” and the original “Planet of the Apes,” directed with his customary flair for the hyperbolic (read lots of elaborate crane shots); the legendary Dalton Trumbo, who served time as a member of the Hollywood 10, provided the empathetic script and appeared in a cameo.

Why, with this pedigree, should we consider a return to Charrière’s Devil’s Island? Because, sadly, the 1973 version didn’t live up to its potential as classic high adventure. Despite a few powerful set pieces and some superb on-location photography (Jamaica and Maui subbed for Guiana) the Schaffner version prove wildly uneven, at once exhilarating, languorous and disjointed (last minute cuts didn’t help). Though he earned points for a rare character turn, the grizzled McQueen was miscast, essentially doing an older version of his Everglades prisoner in “Nevada Smith.” He seemed more lost than alienated. Hoffman, all tics and twitches, overplayed Dega as a squinty-eyed Ratso Rizzo. At times the stars seemed to be acting in different movies.

In ‘73, with the U.S. mired in Vietnam, there was little taste for third world escapes, great or grim. At 151 minutes the film languished at the box office. Cut to just over two hours and shorn of its more graphic moments, the film still under-performed.

While Danish director Michael Noer’s year-old remake will be familiar to anyone who has seen the original — Noer has even cribbed some of Schaffner’s striking prison yard compositions — the remake is, overall, more satisfying. It’s certainly better cast.

Britain’s studly Charlie Hunnam (“Pacific Rim,” “Lost City of Z”) does Papi as an arrogant safecracker who steps on the wrong toes and winds up in a South American purgatory celebrated for its exquisite cruelty. From day one Hunnam’s character is obsessed with finding his way home, surviving whatever the price. He’s less movie star charismatic than McQueen, a measly squire, if you will, to the earlier star’s Cooler King. Which is a good thing. On the run or in solitary confinement he surprises himself by tapping into a selflessness he doesn’t know exists.

Though he resembles the young Hoffman, the sunken-eyed Rami “Mr. Robot” Malek finds his own Dega, a mousy sidekick-trustee who blinks back from the shadows. This is a character turn that should be remembered come Oscar nomination time.

Overall, this indie’s prison sequences are more naturalistic and barbaric than, say, something like “Unbroken”; the emphasis now is where it should be — on the brawny narrative, not marque names. We get more of the arc of Papi’s life, from Place Pigalle backstory to late sixties epilogue. There’s even a “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in-joke.

And how does this retelling address the elephant in the room — Charrière’s penchant for exaggeration and outright fabrication?

With a final exchange between fugitive-author and publisher that’s as much cop-out as dodge.

“So is this really your story?”

“It’s the story of a lot of men.”

PAPILLON ✮✮1/2 With Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek. Directed by Michael Noer; scripted by Aaron Guzikowski from Henri Charriere memoir. 137 min. Rated R (for profanity, graphic violence, gratuitous nudity)

%d bloggers like this: