Return to Paradise

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Ruben

REVIEWED: 08-17-98

When Westerners suffer draconian punishments for drug violations in developing countries, we back home often find ourselves experiencing opposite and equally satisfying reactions. The first, of course, is outrage at the primitive judiciary of these Third World backwaters and smugness about our own superiority. The second is a kind of envy: these punks deserved it, and if our courts had any gumption they'd hand out the same medicine.

Both responses are exploited in the glib, dreary, suspenseless Return to Paradise, a tepid '90s throwback to the inflammatory '70s hit Midnight Express (in fact it's a loose remake of the French film Force majeure). Three loosy-goosy American college graduates -- cynical Sheriff (Vince Vaughn), latter-day flower child Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix), and reserved Tony (David Conrad) -- score women and drugs in the tropical splendor and squalor of Malaysia. True to his name, Sheriff comes to the rescue when the other two are lured into an alley by local toughs. He also embodies their devil-may-care spirit: on their last day, he tosses their rented bicycle over a cliff. The three then dump their remaining hashish into a garbage can and part, Tony to a high-powered architecture job and Sheriff to a chauffeur's uniform, with high-minded Lewis remaining behind to save the orangutans.

This is the kind of film that relies on title cards for dramatic tension. "Two years later" reads one, and lawyer Beth Eastern (Anne Heche) suddenly appears to inform Sheriff and Tony that Lewis will be hanged in eight days -- it seems the owner of the trashed bike dropped by later with the police and the hash was found. If Sheriff and Tony take part of the blame and serve three years in gnarly Penang Prison, they can save Lewis's life.

What to do? For director Joseph Ruben, it's a matter of flashing "seven days left" on the screen and building a tenuous erotic tension between Sheriff and Beth (both Vaughn and Heche rise above their confused characterizations). Then there are the cuts between luxury hotels and a blubbering Lewis eating rice balls (as for Phoenix's performance, you may find yourself rooting for the gallows).

Is the Malaysian justice system inhuman? Must Americans just say no or face the consequences? Ruben plays both sides, and to be extra safe he throws in the media as a scapegoat with Jada Pinkett Smith as a reporter. Although the film touches on the ironies of actions and their consequences, and though Vaughan does almost make you believe in his ordeal of redemption, this is a Paradise of diminishing returns.

--Peter Keough

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