Not that this ain’t a rather superior Hollywood picture. It’s just too bad that it isn’t the masterpiece it could have been. I mean, few plots are that shocking and that unfortunately all too believable than this, but the film they made based on this foreign prison story ain’t quite perfect, despite some brilliant scenes. It all starts when Sheriff, a cocky New York limo driver, flies to Malaysia with fake Frequent Flyer discounts and meets Louis and Tony, two other young Americans who’re there to party. They take advantage of the cheapness of drugs and alcohol, fool around with the natives and bang Malaysian chicks impressed by their Yankee maleness. But the vacation has to end, and the three buddies, now very close, have to part, Sheriff and Tony to the US of A, and Louis to Borneo, where he wants to work in an environmental organization. Two years passes by and Sheriff and Tony, back in New York, are visited by Beth, Louis’ lawyer. They learn from her that their pal was sent to jail one day after they left when the police found a brick of hash at the gang’s place. Convicted of trafficking, Louis is now facing the death sentence, unless his friends go back to Malaysia to take part of the blame.
The film is all about that wrenching dilemma: are these two guys ready to spend three years in a filthy Third World jail to save their friend’s life? The whole thing is quite thought provoking, and it’s well written even though there are some flaws in the script. I personally didn’t buy the love story that’s worked into the film. Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche do have chemistry together, but it doesn’t belong in this particular film. As for Joseph Ruben, his direction is good, but it’s more the cast that makes the film memorable. Joaquin Phoenix is amazing as Louis. He’s simply riveting in every scene, as he tries to remain sane through the hell of prison. Phoenix proves what a gifted actor he is, and if he keeps playing in interesting films, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to win an Oscar in a near future. Who knows, he might even get a nod for this brilliant turn. The last scenes between Phoenix and Vaughn are twice as powerful as the “Earn this” bit from Spielberg’s overpraised Saving Private Ryan.
Anne Heche is equally wrenching as a woman who’s determined to keep him alive. To me, she has really outshined her lover Ellen DeGeneres, and once again, she delivers a nuanced and assured performance. She’s more than just a babe: she’s one of the finest young actresses in Hollywood. Most of the film is built around Sheriff, and Vince Vaughn is an interesting enough guy to carry the movie (he had already proved that as the painfully cool hero of 1996’s best comedy, “Swingers”). I like how his character ain’t just the hunky do-gooder, but more of a Marlon Brando-type flawed hero. He can be a jerk, and he’s not very hot about doing time for a guy he hasn’t seen in two years. In fact, the only bad performance in the movie is Jada Pinkett Smith’s. She’s okay in roles of smartass black bimbos, but she really sucks as the reporter who wants Louis’ story. Maybe it’s because unlike the other characters, hers is one-dimensional. At least, she doesn’t have much screen time, and “Return to Paradise” remains an interesting film.