Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman were at the height of their stardoms in 1973, and Franklin J. Schaffner’s original “Papillon” film that year was a prestige vehicle scaled for greatness — at two-and-a-half hours that felt longer, treating its epic tale too solemnly for some tastes. Nonetheless, its somewhat self-conscious gravity has aged well.
In almost every respect, Danish director Michael Noer’s remake — which as “inspired by true events” credits equally real-life protagonist Henri Charrière’s memoirs and the earlier screenplay as sources — is a humbler enterprise, although still ambitious and impressive enough. New stars Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek are neither burdened nor burnished by already-iconic star status; this brisker telling is less pretentious if also less distinctive as large-scale filmmaking. In the end, what matters most is that the principally unchanged story of survival in colonial French Guiana remains a compelling one, no less when played as a relatively straightforward action-suspense saga rather than as a gargantuan allegory about the Indomitable Human Spirit.
Noer and scenarist Aaron Guzikowski open things up with a rotely over-amped prelude showing Charrière’s roguish persona as a safecracker (played by Hunnam), AKA “Papillon,” in 1931 Paris. His underground high life with glam girlfriend Nenette (Eve Hewson) comes to an abrupt end, however, when he’s framed for a gangland murder, presumably in retaliation for having kept some stolen jewels. Joining him on the shipboard gangplank to a life sentence in South America is millionaire currency counterfeiter Louis Dega (Malek of “Mr. Robot”). It is well-known that only money can make life where they’re headed bearable; and also that Dega is sure to be hiding some on his person. He’s soon more than willing to accept “Papi’s” offer of strong-arm protection in return for funding the latter’s eventual (if seemingly impossible) escape hopes.