[Screen It]


(1998) (Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche) (R)

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Drama: Two friends must decide whether to return to Malaysia and serve time in prison to keep a third friend from being executed as a drug trafficker.
After spending several carefree weeks roaming about Asia, three American friends, Sheriff (VINCE VAUGHN), Tony (DAVID CONRAD), and Lewis (JOAQUIN PHOENIX), end up in Malaysia where they enjoy the company of the local women, as well as the ample supplies of rum and cheap hash. At the end of their trip, Sheriff and Tony return to New York, while Lewis stays behind for some ecological work.

Two years later, attorney Beth Eastern (ANNE HECHE) approaches Sheriff and Tony and delivers startling news and a disturbing plan. The day the two left Malaysia, Lewis was arrested for drug trafficking and has spent the last two years in prison. Sentenced to be executed in eight days, the only way he can be saved is if either or both of his friends return to that country, confesses their guilt to possession of drugs, and serve time in prison -- six years if only one returns, three years each if both go.

Neither men are crazy about the idea, but the thought and guilt of Lewis being executed, or having either man serve the full six year sentence begins to eat away at both Sheriff and Tony, the latter of whom seems more willing to go although he's engaged to be married.

Beth tries all sorts of tactics to get the two men to agree to her plan -- that has no guarantee in writing -- including hints of possible romance between her and Sheriff. She must also contend with an ambitious tabloid reporter, M.J. Major (JADA PINKETT SMITH), who thinks her story could save Lewis' life by raising international awareness of his plight. Beth, however, realizes that any such story will likely result in the death sentence being carried out.

As the clock counts down toward the scheduled execution, and Beth puts as much pressure on Sheriff and Tony as she can muster, the two men must make difficult decisions that may possibly have unforseen repercussions and change their lives forever.

Unless they're fans of someone in the cast, most likely only older teens would want to see this film.
For language, drug content, some sexuality and a scene of violence.
  • VINCE VAUGHN plays a limo driver who learns of his friend's "problem." Riddle with guilt and concern for his own well-being, he often seems cold and callous toward his friend's plight. Beyond early drug use, he smokes, gets drunk in one scene and cusses a lot.
  • ANNE HECHE plays Lewis' attorney who will do anything to get his two friends to agree to her plan, including sleeping with Sheriff (although that also somewhat naturally progresses from their close contact). She also smokes and cusses some.
  • DAVID CONRAD plays an engaged construction worker who must decide whether to save his friend's life or build his own with his fiancÚ (he also used drugs while in Malaysia).
  • JOAQUIN PHOENIX plays the friend who's scheduled to be executed for drug trafficking (although he was just a user).


    OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
    Based on the 1990 French film, "Force Majeure," and rather reminiscent of "Midnight Express" (the 1978 film loosely based on the true story of an American college student imprisoned in a foreign prison for smuggling drugs), "Return To Paradise" is a thought-provoking, but not always gripping exploration of where one draws the line between friendship and self-preservation. Interesting and compelling, the film ultimately suffers from not having sufficient emotional depth to either make the characters completely believable and sympathetic, or to get the audience completely behind their cause.

    The problem stems from several areas where the film fumbles the ball -- so to speak -- while trying to manipulate the audience into caring about the story. Unlike "Midnight Express" that showed the horrors of torture at the hands of a foreign penal code, this film barely shows the prisoner until late in the movie. Instead, it focuses more on the characters grappling with a difficult and potentially life changing -- and saving -- decision.

    While that provides for compelling drama in its own right, it hampers the film from truly being as effective as it could be. Since we don't see much of Lewis in prison -- and mainly only get accounts of his condition from his lawyer -- we don't experience the horrors that he's going through. That creates a double-edged problem. Although we care about his plight and worry about the execution by default, we need to see what he's going through, how he's mistreated, and perhaps even see others being executed to make us fully realize what's going to happen.

    Without that, the fear factor is lessened, and then also applies to what his two friends may face if they agree to the plan. As it stands, everything is quite abstract. It all sounds bad, but we need to see the horrible conditions and potential punishment to fully sympathize with all of the characters, their decisions, and their possible fates.

    Another problem stems from the fact that we don't know these guys very well, and apparently they don't know each other that well either. None have contacted the others for two years since returning, so the "good friend in danger" scenario isn't that effective. The way it plays out, it's as if these guys briefly met while in Malaysia, had some good times, but could care less about contacting -- let alone seeing -- each other. The end result of that, coupled with the sketchily drawn, "grey" characters, is that the difficult decision isn't as nerve wracking as it should be.

    Thus, the film essentially boils down to a morality play featuring basically anonymously drawn characters. In its defense, the film's story still works, and it gets the audience not only to wonder what decision these guys will make, but also what decision they would make if faced with the same situation.

    Much like the old college psych/sociology class scenario about being a surgeon forced to decide which sole person to save from a wide array of needy patients -- including your own kid -- the film is one of those soul-searching dramas. It's just too bad that director Joseph Ruben ("Money Train," "Sleeping With The Enemy") and screenwriters Wesley Strick ("Cape Fear") and Bruce Robinson ("Jennifer Eight") didn't give the characters more depth and thus make them more human.

    Instead, they feel like the sketchily drawn characters found in those old college moral dilemma exercises. Consequently, we don't get that queasy feeling that should arise on its own about whether they've made the right decision.

    This isn't to say that the performances aren't good -- on the contrary, they're quite good. It's just that they would have been so much better had we known more about the characters -- what makes them tick, what guides their lives -- but we only get hints of that. Sure, we see them grappling with what decision to make, but it mostly comes off as surface tension, and not some gut wrenching process.

    The clear standout among the performers is easily Anne Heche ("Six Days, Seven Nights," "Wag The Dog") who continues to deliver one strong performance after another, and she seems to be gaining greater confidence in her thespian abilities with each picture. While we don't know much about her character here beyond the obvious, Heche manages to bring a desperate dignity to the role that plays quite well.

    Vince Vaughn ("Swingers," "The Locusts") continues to impress with his performances, although I would have preferred him having a more fleshed out character with which to work. Still exuding that young Paul Newman/Marlon Brando aura, Vaughn does well with what he's been given, however, and his character's nebulous qualities keep the audience continually guessing about his final decision.

    As the other friend faced with the same dilemma, David Conrad (TV's "Relativity") is good and probably portrays the most realistic, if underdeveloped of the characters. Joaquin Phoenix ("Inventing The Abbotts," "To Die For") is also good as the sickly prisoner who desperately wants to live, but like the other characters suffers from the audience not knowing much about what makes him tick. Jada Pinkett Smith ("The Nutty Professor," "Set It Off") is pretty much wasted in her small role that appears to have been left mostly on the editing room floor, or in the screenwriters' imaginations.

    While some may find the proceedings as quite dramatically suspenseful and possibly even gut wrenching, the film just never connected for me. I can easily appreciate the dramatic dilemma facing the characters, but only wished that we knew more about them, and that the film possessed a greater sense of urgency.

    Although we're constantly reminded of how many days are left in Lewis' life by the use of onscreen titles, I never felt that nervous and didn't get the feeling that the characters were either as they seemed to waste a lot of time while trying to force or come to a decision.

    Featuring a great setup and decent to quite good performances, I found the film to be marred by its superficial qualities that prevented me from getting as involved in the story as I believed I should have been. Thus, "Return To Paradise" gets just a 6 out of 10.

    Although it's doubtful many younger kids will want to see this picture, here's a quick look at its content. Profanity is extreme with 45 uses of the "f" word and an assortment of others. We see some drug use (which is also the catalyst for the story), along with a moderate amount of drinking, including one character who's briefly seen drunk.

    We see a brief sexual encounter among unknown characters in the back of a limo (with movement and sounds but no nudity), and other encounters are implied, and we also see some glimpses of partial nudity. A person is hung and some mature thematic elements are present (involving the guys' having to decide what to do). Should you or someone in your home wish to see this film, you may want to take a closer look at the content we've listed.

  • We see Sheriff smoking some hash, and later all three guys inhale some from a wooden bong. In the opening monologue, we hear that Malaysia was a paradise of "rum, girls, and cheap hash."
  • Later, Sheriff throws a "brick" of hash into the garbage because they have too much already. It's that and presumably other amounts that land Lewis in jail, charged with being a drug trafficker.
  • We briefly see people drinking in a club.
  • Tony has a beer in Malaysia.
  • We see a glass of wine next to Beth.
  • We see that Tony and his fiancÚ have had wine.
  • People drink in a restaurant, and Beth has wine while Sheriff has a rum and coke.
  • Sheriff and Beth drink beer.
  • A female "acquaintance" of Sheriff's comes up and throws a mug of beer on him.
  • Sheriff has a beer at home.
  • Sheriff walks along a building's roof while drinking liquor straight from the bottle and appears drunk.
  • Beth, Tony, and his fiancÚ have beer with dinner.
  • Sheriff and Beth have beer again.
  • A man smokes "pure rock cocaine" in the back of Sheriff's limo.
  • We see some sort of wound or sore on Lewis' back while he lies on his bunk, and later he has some blood (or a sore) in the corner of his mouth.
  • Some may see Sheriff and Tony's inability to immediately make the decision to save their friend's life -- as well as their overall indecision and occasional outright refusal -- as having some of both.
  • Likewise, Beth could be seen having both for her manipulative efforts to get the men to agree to the plan.
  • M.J. -- while doing her job -- continues to pursue the story despite being told that an international news story might endanger Lewis' life.
  • Instead of returning their now damaged rental bicycle, Sheriff picks it up and throws it down a ravine (which eventually leads to the shop owner calling the police about the missing bike, causing them to visit the guys' cabin, find the hash and arrest Lewis).
  • When Sheriff asks a guy in the back of his limo if he's getting ready to smoke some crack, the man comments that he's got pure cocaine and that "crack is for African Americans."
  • Some locals surround Tony and Lewis in a back alley until Sheriff comes along. He pushes some guys and then holds what's either a small knife or an old-fashioned bottle opener to a guy's throat.
  • Once we're aware of the countdown to Lewis' execution, the film has somewhat of an overall tense quality to it, especially as Beth revs up her efforts to convince the guys to go along with the plan.
  • Some may find a courtroom scene with Lewis' fate hanging in the balance as tense.
  • We see a prisoner being dragged down a hallway, taken out to the gallows and hung.
  • Prison guards/soldiers carry machine guns.
  • Phrases: "Holy sh*t," "Chicks" (for women), "Give 'em hell," "Whore," "Bastards," "Hard as hell" and "Sucks."
  • All three guys simultaneously ride on a single bicycle.
  • A female "acquaintance" of Sheriff's comes up and throws a mug of beer on him.
  • None.
  • Several scenes have just some minor, tense undertones in them.
  • None.
  • At least 45 "f" words (2 used sexually, 1 used with "mother"), 12 "s" words, 1 slang term for female genitals ("p*ssy"), 5 hells, 4 asses (2 used with "hole"), 3 S.O.B.'s, 1 damn, and 5 uses each of "G-damn" and "Jesus Christ," 2 each of "Jesus," "God," and "Swear To God," and 1 use each of "Oh God" and "Oh my God" as exclamations.
  • We see brief videotaped footage of some exotic dancers in a club and see most of a woman's bare butt in her thong-like bottom.
  • We see the side of a local woman's bare breast as she lies in a hammock with Sheriff (somewhat implying previous sexual activity since she covers herself when she gets up).
  • A woman in the city tells Lewis and Tony that she'll sell them an aphrodisiac that will "keep you hard as a rock all night."
  • We hear sexual sounds in the back of the limo that Sheriff's driving, and we then see his rearview mirror view. Two people in the backseat are fooling around and we see the man run his hands over the woman's breast. Another glimpse then shows her on top of his lap, having sex, and we hear sexual sounds and see movement, but no nudity.
  • We see part of Beth's bra and underwear as she walks along with a half-open robe.
  • After throwing a mug of beer onto Sheriff, a woman tells Beth that "he'll f*ck you and then leave via the fire escape if he has to."
  • Sheriff comments to Beth that since her bribe didn't work, was her next plan "to f*ck" him?
  • Sheriff and Beth kiss, and he lays her down on a bed, with him on top of her and more kissing. The scene immediately cuts to her waking up in bed and wondering where he is, implying that they had sex. We then briefly see the side of her bare breast as she gets dressed.
  • Beth undresses and gets into a bathtub with Sheriff (no nudity so far). They kiss and we then see the tops and sides of her breasts, but as the scene ends, it's hard to tell whether they have sex or not.
  • Mostly in dark shadows, we somewhat see a nude prisoner bathing himself.
  • Both Beth and Sheriff smoke several times, while some background characters also smoke.
  • We eventually meet Lewis' sibling who's understandably concerned about the predicament he's in.
  • The reasons the men have a hard time deciding whether to go back and help their friend, and what decision you and/or your family members would make in a similar situation.
  • That foreign judicial systems are different from those in the U.S.
  • We briefly see some boxing footage on a videotape (for those who consider that violence).
  • Some locals surround Tony and Lewis in a back alley until Sheriff comes along. He pushes some guys and then holds what's either a small knife or an old-fashioned bottle opener to a guy's throat.
  • Beth throws a beer bottle against Sheriff's wall, and he then does the same. Storming from his place, he encounters a photographer in the hallway, grabs him, and throws his camera to the floor.
  • We see a prisoner being dragged down a hallway, taken out to the gallows and hung (which some will see as violence, and others as punishment).

  • Reviewed August 5, 1998

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