Papillon

When the band Weezer covered the Toto song “Africa” I heard it and thought — cool! It sounds just like the original. About half way through the song I thought…this is kind of lame. It sounds just like the original.

When it comes to bands covering songs, I think they should make them their own. They should sound different. Kind of like the punk band X covering The Doors “Soul Kitchen,” or the Cowboy Junkies making a lovely, slow ballad out of The Velvet Underground (Lou Reed) song “Sweet Jane.”

When it comes to movies being remade, my opinion always seems to change. Generally, I just don’t like it. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory didn’t need Johnny Depp prancing around acting weird. The original holds up just fine. But one of my favorite sports movies was a remake — Heaven Can Wait. So if enough time goes by, and a new filmmaker wants to do their own version of a story, go for it.

The original Papillion came out in 1973. That’s enough time for a remake that can tell a new generation this true story. The only problem for this generation is…a long prison story about a guy who suffers for so long…will make them think it’s just a boring story similar to one they love — The Shawshank Redemption.

The problem for me is the original. I only saw it once. I was 12-years-old and my stepdad was watching it on TV. It was thrilling to watch Steve McQueen on screen, beating up prisoners. I was at that age where I got to see some of those 70s badass guys do their thing. The movie was really long, but I felt it made me really feel like those prisoners felt being there for so long. I remember also being surprised at how weird a character Dustin Hoffman was playing. It was such a powerful film by director Franklin Schaffner (Patton, Planet of the Apes).

So my wife and I sat down to watch this version by Danish director Michael Noer.

Charlie Hunnam, who was terrific in the disappointing The Lost City of Z, has the perfect look and reminded me a bit of McQueen.

Rami Malek, who is getting a lot of attention for playing Freddie Mercury in the upcoming Queen picture, is great in his role. The problem is that at times it felt like he was mimicking Hoffman. At least he toned down all the weird mannerisms Hoffman did. Hoffman was so obsessed with showing you how well he could “act” with the role, whereas Malek made this seem more like a real character.  

Hunnam plays Henri Charriere, a man living in Paris in the early ‘30s. He’s a jewel thief that gets mixed in with the wrong crowd, and that ends with him being pinned for the murder of a pimp. He’s sent to serve life in a penal colony in French Guiana. Finding out he’s going to need to money to finance the escape he’s counting on, he befriends a rich, meek prisoner named Louis Dega (Malek). He’s a brilliant, learned man, but probably somewhere on the autism scale.

It’s weird how when you watch a movie, after having seen so many other films, you can’t help but think of those other movies. For example, the sadistic guards and the bonding of these two men, reminded me a bit of Cool Hand Luke. I also thought about the horrible Angelina Jolie movie Unbroken a few years ago.

This version is a lot heavier on the violence, but it never felt gratuitous. It was needed to really show their plight. It’s just a shame I didn’t feel the same about their…bonding. Yet I don’t know if that’s their fault, or the fact that I can remember the original so vividly. There was only one moment, after a long stretch in solitary and the two prisoners see each other again, that you felt there was something special between the two.

A few of the scenes were exactly like the original, but I just don’t remember that version enough to know how much was the same. I do know that, for those of us that saw the original (and might have the most interest in this version), knowing what is going to happen at various times, makes things a lot less enjoyable than someone watching this story for the first time.

Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski does a great job capturing the lush landscapes beautifully, and the violence of the prison.

So if Weezer’s version of “Africa” comes on the radio, I’ll probably listen to it and hum along. But if this version of Papillon is ever on TV, I’d probably switch the channel. I wouldn’t sit and watch it like I have so many times with The Shawshank Redemption.

2 ½ stars out of 5.

 

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