When “Papillon” initially landed in theaters in late 1973, expectations were inescapable.
Based on the sensational, bestselling 1969 autobiography by Henri Charriere, the French convict who would successfully break out of Devil’s Island, the ambitious production co-starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, then ranked No. 8 and No. 9, respectively, on the annual Quigley Poll of Top Ten Money Making Stars.
It also had a bankable director in Franklin J. Schaffner, who had previously delivered the crowd-pleasing goods with “Patton” and “Planet of the Apes.”
That degree of marquee value is worth bearing in mind with this week’s arrival of a brand new “Papillon” that manages to be both meaner and leaner (by about 14 minutes), while drawing sturdy performances from leads Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek, two actors who had their breakthroughs on a pair of TV series, “Sons of Anarchy” and “Mr. Robot,” respectively.
But while it might have been assumed that Danish filmmaker Michael Noer, unencumbered by all that big studio baggage, would be freer to put his own stamp on the material, the end result feels routinely anonymous.
Incorporating the original’s screenplay from Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. as well as a pair of Charriere memoirs as its blueprint, the new script by Aaron Guzikowski (“Prisoners”) adds a pointless prologue set in Paris circa 1931 that portrays the glamorous, high-rolling life of safecracker Henri “Papillon” Charriere (Hunnam).
Tracing the events leading to Charriere being framed for murder and handed a life sentence, the sequence ultimately serves to introduce a female character into this otherwise all-male mix, in the form of Charriere’s girlfriend Nenette (Eve Hewson).
As with the 1973 version, the story really begins on a barge carrying prisoners to the brutal penal colony where Charriere meets timid currency forger Louis Dega (Malek) and the two form a bond predicated on a business proposition: Charrier will offer the vulnerable Dega protection in return for him bankrolling an escape plan with his hidden stash of funds.
Turns out both the funds and protection will come in awfully handy at the notorious Camp de la Transportation presided over by sadistic warden Barrot (an effectively steely Yorick van Wageningen). Noer, who first attracted attention with his 2010 prison drama, “R,” choreographs the various beatings and beheadings with a fierce efficiency.
What’s missing is a more personal directorial imprint.
The original film aside, many of the incarceration scenes echo those in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” while an escape aboard a leaky boat brings to mind one aboard an inflatable raft in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” and a fight sequence in an outdoor shower can’t help but invite comparisons to that naked Viggo Mortensen Russian bathhouse scene in David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises.”
The actors prove more successful at making the characters their own, with Hunnam, though lacking the sort of casual swagger that rightfully earned McQueen his “King of Cool” status, possessing sufficient Chris Hemsworth-type tough guy likability to keep his ordeal involving.
Malek, who’ll get a chance to show his impressive range as the decidedly more extroverted Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in the upcoming “Bohemian Rhapsody,” conceals an intense take-no-prisoners survival instinct beneath Dega’s meek demeanor while affectionately throwing in the occasional inflection that is pure Hoffman.
But by the time the film reaches its new 1969 coda, during which Hunnam — and a lot of unconvincing old age makeup — attempts to get his life story published, those extra details end up adding little of value.
Despite the efforts to give “Papillon” a broader wingspan, it seldom engagingly takes flight.
Rated: R, for violence including bloody images, language, nudity and some sexual material
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Playing: In general release