Although it's overly exhaustive as it catalogues its protagonist's many attempts to regain his freedom, Papillon remains the mother, or at least the master, of all prison-escape flicks. Less of a straight-up procedural than such heirs to the throne as Escape From Alcatraz, the film tempers its unashamedly psychological approach (dream sequences, tests of will, and triumph-of-the-downtrodden hokum) with enough gritty realism (knife fights, guillotines, malaria, and leprous smugglers) to appease those who want their depravity served up extra stark. Escape-film vet Steve McQueen showcases his range both physically and mentally as his character seems to age forward and backward and go in and out of sanity depending on the barbarity of his method of incarceration at any given time. Dustin Hoffman, meanwhile, gets to have it both ways, outrageous vocal and physical tics and subtle psychological shadings, as the rich counterfeiter whose colonic stash of cash finances several of Papillon's attempts to bust out. Viewers may watch the closing credits incredulously, unable to believe that after 150 minutes, director Franklin J. Schaffner still has to resort to a spoken-word epilogue to wrap up loose ends, but for devotees of the genre and fans of McQueen's tough-guy oeuvre, Papillon is worth the investment of time.
by Brian J. Dillard review