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In Theaters: PAPILLON (2018)

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PAPILLON
(US - 2018)

Directed by Michael Noer. Written by Aaron Guzikowski. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Eve Hewson, Yorick van Wageningen, Roland Moller, Tommy Flanagan, Michael Socha, Joel Basman, Christopher Fairbank, Slavko Sobin, Antonio de la Cruz. (R, 133 mins)

Based on the 1969 memoir of Devil's Island escapee Henri Charriere, the 1973 hit PAPILLON provided the legendary Steve McQueen with one of his most indelible characters, even if the film wasn't exactly faithful to Charriere, nicknamed "Papillon" because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest. A remake was completely unnecessary but we've got one anyway, and while it's based more on the 1973 film's script by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr., it still takes its own, different liberties. The results are better than expected, due in large part to its straightforward approach to its action sequences (who would've thought camera stability and visual coherence would be considered "old school?"), and guys throwing punches that actually sound like real punches hitting flesh. It's also R-rated versus the 1973's PG (it was originally R, but got a PG on appeal, and it does get away with a lot for a PG), allowing acclaimed Danish filmmaker Michael Noer (R, NORTHWEST), making his American debut, much more room for graphic violence and brutality, including a knife fight in a shower that clearly shows Noer is a fan of EASTERN PROMISES. The central story remains the same, opening in 1931 Paris with safecracker Papillon (Charlie Hunnam) keeping a few diamonds from a recent job for himself and being framed by his employer (Christopher Fairbank) for the murder of a pimp and sentenced to a brutal penal colony in French Guiana. Once there, he forms an alliance with wealthy counterfeiter Louis Dega (Rami Malek in Dustin Hoffman's 1973 role), offering protection in exchange for bankrolling an attempted escape. Time and again, Papillon runs afoul of Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageningen), earning two-year and five-year stints in solitary. Eventually, Papillon plans his most ambitious escape attempt yet, using the last of Dega's money--usually stored in his rectum--to secure a boat from a local trader (Hunnam's SONS OF ANARCHY co-star Tommy Flanagan) as he and Dega form an unholy alliance with brutish Celier (Roland Moller) and young Maturette (Joel Basman).





Shot two years ago and tied up in part due to the apparently-defunct production company Red Granite's legal problems tied to racketeering and an ongoing Malaysian government scandal (Red Granite had to pay a $60 million settlement to the US Justice Department and the company's name is no longer in the credits or the advertising), PAPILLON '18 hits all the same bullet points as PAPILLON '73 with some changes of varying significance--a changed name here, a different circumstance there. But Noer and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (PRISONERS) include enough unique touches to allow their version to stand on its own. It's also an unexpected development that, unlike almost all prison wardens in popular culture, von Wageningen's Barrot is stern and unsympathetic without crossing the line into sadism, even almost begrudgingly respecting Papillon's resolve for emerging from years in silent solitary confinement with his mind intact. Hunnam and Malik are very good, but they're obviously not McQueen and Hoffman, and they'd probably be the first to agree with that point. No one in this film sounds French but then, neither did the stars of PAPILLON '73.





One minor stumble of PAPILLON '18 is that some of the vernacular in its early scenes doesn't really sound very "1931 Paris," especially when characters start dropping tough guy GOODFELLASisms like "Fuck that piece of shit!" and "Cut his fuckin' balls off!" (there's even another variant later as Flanagan's character yells "Pay me or fuck you!"). There's a nightmare sequence as Papillon comes close to breaking in solitary that looks like an outtake from Alejandro Jodorowky's SANTA SANGRE, and when he's eventually condemned for life to Devil's Island, his arrival has surreal, otherworldly feel of AGUIRRE and HEART OF GLASS-era Werner Herzog (or, possibly, the "Village of the Crazies" sequence in GYMKATA). Such arthouse flourishes aren't something usually seen in a generally mainstream summer release, and the location work in Serbia and Malta, the very physically committed performances of Hunnam and the other actors, and the reliance on as much practical shooting as possible on painstakingly constructed recreations of the penal colony give the film a real-world tangibility that's lost a lot these days as more films utilize CGI and greenscreen for even the simplest shots (Hunnam seems drawn to this sort of thing, between this and James Gray's THE LOST CITY OF Z). Regardless of its superfluous nature, PAPILLON '18's work ethic is admirable. It obviously doesn't supplant it predecessor, but it's fine film in its own right, and better and more compelling than it has any business being.



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