Oh, to be young, independent, sexy… and rotting in some hellhole of a foreign prison.
Young Americans take a lot of things for granted. The right to party, to be spontaneous, to make quick friends, to stiff a rental service or skate on some free drinks, that kind of thing. Mostly they get away with it, and when things go bad, they can usually talk their way out of the consequences or get a lawyer to talk for them.
Around the time Bill Clinton was getting impeached for breaking the rules himself, Hollywood got in a game of chicken on two films about young American travelers who make some mistakes in judgment, run afoul of very strict drug laws and end up in nightmares they can’t wake up from.
In 1998’s Return to Paradise, a trip to Malaysia turns abysmal for three guys looking for a big beach party getaway. The following year, in Brokedown Palace, bad luck and bad choices surround two Ohio high school grads who, on a trip to Thailand, get suckered in a drug con. Neither movie paints a flattering portrait of Americans traveling abroad, or the legal systems over there.
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Somehow, you just know that graduation trip planned by Alice (Claire Danes) and Darlene (Kate Beckinsale) in Brokedown Palace will skid off the rails — especially when they secretly change their travel destination from Hawaii to Thailand. Alice, the strong willed pal, says it’ll be fun. And it is, until they get caught charging drinks to somebody else’s hotel room.
An Australian, Nick Parks (Daniel Lapaine) covers the tab, then proceeds to seduce Alice, then Darlene. He offers them a fantasy in which they can live anywhere and possess anything they desire. They accept free air tickets to Hong Kong (bad idea) and discover the truth too late: They are the sacrificial drug mules in a plan to distract police from a larger smuggling operation. Oops — how’d those two kilos of heroin get into that backpack? Police are convinced one or both of them put it there.
What follows are images of Thailand you’ll never see in the travel brochures. Prison life is grim; corruption riddles the legal system; and our heroines don’t help their cause with a bungled escape attempt. Adding dramatic color to the mix is Hank “The Yank” Greene (Bill Pullman), an American lawyer living in Bangkok. His negotiations on their behalf bring about the central moral challenge facing Alice and Darlene.
Jonathan Kaplan directed a script that David Arata and Adam Fields adapted from a story written by Arata.
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The Defending Champion
Three pals thought they found the perfect vacation getaway in Return to Paradise: cheap accommodations, drugs and female companionship. In typical Ugly American fashion, they ditch a rental bicycle before Tony and Sheriff (David Conrad and Vince Vaughn) return to their lives in New York. They leave Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) behind and hear nothing further from him for two years.
That’s when lawyer Beth Eastern (Anne Heche) pops up to inform them that Lewis is on death row in Penang Prison. It turns out that abandoned bicycle led police to the house shared by the three amigos, where a quantity of hash was found. Beth presents a difficult choice: Lewis will be hanged in eight days unless his friends return to Malaysia and confess their complicity. If they do, Beth says Lewis will be spared and all three will serve short time.
Not surprisingly, this is a very tough sell. Other complications — like Beth’s back story and her affair with Sheriff, which Tony knows nothing about — muddy the picture. New York reporters sniffing a good story also raise the tension level.
Their fragile agreement to help their friend cannot last. It falls apart completely when Tony learns all, and news stories reach Malaysia alleging corruption in the legal system there.
This film, directed by Joseph Ruben and written by Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson, is a remake of the film Force Majeure.
Before going on here, let’s pay proper respect to the film that got this entire sub-genre fired up, director Alan Parker’s and screenwriter Oliver Stone’s 1978 film, Midnight Express. Brad Davis played Billy Hayes in this true story about another naïve American who tries to smuggle two kilos of hash through a Turkish airport. It’s enough to put you off drugs entirely, or at least vacations abroad. Very tough stuff for its time.
The nightmare even makes great TV these days. First, British TV jumped on the tour boat with Banged Up Abroad, the Channel Five docudrama series that was aired as Locked Up Abroad here in the U.S.
And Lifetime, of course, just kicked ass with its Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy move-for-television starring Heroes’ Hayden Panetierre.
The point is there’s something primal about the subject matter that resonates on a level of fear and dread. Done right, it’s like watching a car wreck.
As far as our two contenders, both production teams were unwelcome guests in the countries where their stories take place, so they mostly filmed elsewhere. Claire Danes famously didn’t enjoy her experience filming in Manila; her public comments earned condemnation by the President of the Philippines.
Perhaps those exotic settings informed her performance in Brokedown Palace. Her character early on is smugly ignorant and intolerant. Danes is believable in a way that Kate Beckinsale (as Darlene) is not. Bill Pullman breaks up the depressing tone such a story cannot escape. The story itself is straightforward and a little predictable. But, as stipulated, still a primal punch to the gut.
By contrast, Return to Paradise offers more going on in the world at large and the story about how to save the jailed characters. Would you go back to face the music — when saving a life lands you in prison? If you knew the truth about Beth Eastern would that affect your decision? Should it?
Anne Heche is persistent and good; so is Joaquin Phoenix as the unhinged and doomed Lewis. Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers, Dodgeball) reminds us he’s good for more than a laugh. The film itself, like Brokedown Palace, does not portray local people or their society in a very positive light.
While neither of these two films has the impact of being first like Midnight Express or being ripped from scandalous headlines like Amanda Knox, they’re still good enough to merit another look if you don’t remember them, or maybe you’re just a parent who wants to scare the crap out of your kids before they go abroad with their loser friends.
Because they closely resemble one another, look to the story for the points. Alice faces a big decision in Brokedown Palace, but how big since she’s in the women’s prison already? Sheriff and Tony face the longer path to redemption in Return to Paradise. One of them makes it all the way there.
I’m not sure how I would respond under those circumstances. Thankfully, I have a much easier choice to make: Return to Paradise. Because you won’t know how this one ends until it’s over.