Return to Paradise
1998, R, 109 min. Directed by Joseph Ruben. Starring Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Joaquin Phoenix, David Conrad, Jada Pinkett, Vera Farmiga, Nick Sandow, Ming Lee.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 14, 1998
Return to Paradise is sort of Midnight Express retooled for Gen-X sensibilities. Ruben, who made his mark as a superior director of above-average thrillers with 1987's harrowing The Stepfather, has since stumbled a bit (The Good Son, with Macaulay Culkin, wasn't a good sign by anyone's standards). Still, he's managed to pull a few hat tricks in the interim, although Return to Paradise misses the mark almost entirely. Collegiate expats Sheriff (Vaughn), doe-eyed Lewis (Phoenix), and architect-to-be Tony (Conrad) are vacationing in Malaysia, sopping up wine, women, sun, and the requisite hash just days before they're scheduled to fly back to the States. Lewis, for his part, plans on staying behind to help return injured orangutans to the wild, and after a drunken, hash-happy bender, the trio parts ways with hollow promises to stay in touch. Two years pass. Sheriff, now a cynical, scheming New York limo driver, picks up a slight, blonde fare one evening who informs him that the day after he and Tony left Penang, Lewis was arrested by the Malaysian authorities and, due to the hashish the trio carelessly tossed in the trash on the way out of town, he was charged with drug dealing -- a capital offense. Having remained incarcerated for the past two years, Lewis' execution date is eight days away, and the only way to save his life is to have Sheriff and Tony return to Penang and share culpability. The blonde is Beth Eastern (Heche), Lewis' lawyer, and this Manhattan battle of wills -- will they or won't they? -- makes up the first half of Ruben's film. When Tony, engaged and with a promising career at his feet, agrees to return to save Lewis, Sheriff is obliged to go along for the ride, and Return to Paradise spends the next hour visiting the Penang hellhole where Lewis has slowly deteriorated -- mentally and physically -- over the past two years. There are, of course, the requisite trial sequences, and some mildly horrific shocks along the way, but Ruben and company fail to make any of this very interesting. Granted, Vaughn's character arc is a wonder to behold, but I can't help but think that these characters just aren't the sort of guys anyone's really going to give a damn about. Heche does her best to be earnest and pained in the face of her client's doom, but she's so naturally spritely -- that blonde bob screams “cuddles!” -- that the role soars clean over her head. Phoenix is well-cast as the starry-eyed dreamer fallen from grace, but his role is essentially one of hollow-eyed rants and lunatic charm. Vaughn, for his part, pulls off the thuggish Sheriff well enough, but by the film's crucial final reel, the only emotional tug you feel is the one generated by cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos' breathtaking shots of the Malay peninsula. And then, of course, after this dark little misfire, you're never going to set foot over there anyway, so why bother?