'Paradise' asks, Would you go to prison or let a friend die?
American tourism in Malaysia is not likely to spike in the wake of "Return to Paradise," in which the country's judicial system is made to look like a kangaroo court of the first order, where Americans arrested on minor offenses are at risk of being used to demonstrate the nation's strict law enforcement.
A loose remake of the French film "Force Majeure," it is reminicent of the 1994 incident in Singapore when an American was caned as a punishment for valdalism. But this story personalizes the potential horror of Third World justice with emotionally-manipulative drama that invites the audience to submerge themselves in a nearly impossible moral dilemma.
"Paradise" stars Vince Vaughn ("Swingers," "The Lost World") as a indifferent, cynical Manhattanite called on to sacrifice his freedom to save the life of an aquaintence who is scheduled to hang in Penang for drug possession.
As the film opens, Sheriff, Tony and Lewis (Vaughn, David Conrad and Joaquin Phoenix) -- all recent college graduates looking for one last summer of "rum, girls and good cheap hash" -- meet in the Malaysian capital and spent a few months partying.
At the end of their time together, Sheriff and Tony returned to New York and Lewis, the beatnick of the bunch, is about to start work at an Asian primate preserve.
The three pals promise to keep in touch, but they don't speak again until two years later when a lawyer (Anne Heche) tracks down Sheriff and Tony on behalf of Lewis, who was arrested for possession of their collective hashish stash the day after they left Malaysia -- and is scheduled to hang in a week.
With only a few days to make a decision, Lewis' life is in their hands. If they're willing to go back to Penang and confess to possession, the Malaysian government has agreed in principle to spare Lewis and release Sheriff and Tony after three years. If only one of them goes back, he would have to do six years.
"Return to Paradise" ask the question, Would you voluntarily enter a squalid, potentially torturous Third World prison to save the life of someone you hardly know?
For morally upstanding Tony the decision is difficult, but his course is clear -- he'll go back if Sheriff will as well. However, Sheriff, extremely selfish by nature, faces an internal struggle between his cavalier heart and his potentially guilty soul.
The concequences of this decission weigh in Vaughn's eyes as he wafffles between relucant cooperation and flat out refusals. As Lewis's lawyer, Heche has a deep, emotional committment that pools in her steely eyes as she tries desperately to appeal to Sheriff's burried conscience.
Meanwhile Phoenix ("To Die For," "Inventing the Abbotts") plumbs the frightful conditions of Lewis' surroundings and his languishing mental state for a sobering and compassionate performance that, even when he is just cowering in the shadows of his dilapitated cell, whisks the audience into the complete turmoil any Westerner would feel such a place.
The film eventually moves on to a chilling, anxious courtroom climax, in which justice seems imminent until the Malaysian judge has a venomous reaction to the trial coverage in Western newspapers.
While "Return to Paradise" loses some credibility with an implausable, circumstantial romance and the conspicuous absense of the State Department in Lewis' defense, to his credit, director Joseph Ruben ("Money Train," "Sleeping With the Enemy") does not kowtow to the kind of sunny, triumphant solutions savvy movie-goers might expect from this kind of story.
Although we've been conditioned to want something to cheer about in the last reels of moral thrillers, this picture is all the more satisfying and memorable because it eschews these expectations.