Not so long ago Westerners travelled through various Third World countries and had good time without worrying about such things as terrorism. But even in those blissful days there were ways in which they could get in some serious trouble. One of those situations served as the basis for Return to Paradise, 1998 drama directed by Joseph Ruben.
The film starts in Malaysia where three young American tourists - Sheriff (played by Vince Vaughn), Tony (played by David Conrad) and Lewis (played by Joaquin Phoenix) - meet and decide to spend time enjoying beautiful countryside, exotic women and cheap hashish. After one month of fun they part ways - Sheriff and Tony return to USA while Lewis, a self-declared environmentalist, chooses to stay in order to save orang-utans in Borneo. Two years later Sheriff works as a limo driver in New York. He is approached by Beth (played by Anne Heche), attorney who explains that two years earlier Lewis got arrested in Malaysia with trio's hashish. The amount of drugs was just above the legal limit for possession and Lewis, technically a drug dealer, faces mandatory death sentence. Lewis' life can be saved if two of his friends return to Malaysia and admit that they owned the confiscated drugs. That would reduce Lewis' cut but all three men would have to spend three years in Malaysian jail. If only one comes forward, he would have to serve six years. Sheriff is put into unpleasant situation - if he agrees he would save someone's life; on the other hand, he didn't know Lewis long enough to justify three years in Third World hellhole. Situation is even worse for Tony - he is successful architect about to get married and has lot to more to lose if he goes to jail.
The basic plot of Return to Paradise looks too effective to be hatched in 1990s Hollywood, so few people are going to be surprised when they find that this film is actually a remake of 1989 French film Force majeure. Original or not, script for Return to Paradise is something of a rarity in modern-day Hollywood – it deals with important ethical issues in non-preachy, realistic and intelligent manner. The situation in which Sheriff finds himself might look unique, but his dilemma is something all of us can experience in one way or the other. For example, most people believe that they could do the right thing and adhere to noble principles in difficult situations. After September 11th 2001 most people in the world believed that the only way to deal with the terrorism was to fight terrorists at any cost. But when such noble principles begin to take their toll on peoples' security and prosperity, convenient excuses for abandoning them suddenly begin to pop up. When fighting terror turned into seemingly endless and expensive campaign, increasing number of individuals and nations began to take example of Spain and succumb to terrorist blackmail. Protagonist of this film is in the similar situation - three years of prison might look like a small price for saving someone's life, but not for someone who is forced to endure three years of malnourishment, abuse and humiliation. The film makes such dilemma even more intriguing by having three instead of only two potential outcomes.
Return to Paradise is also extraordinary in its treatment of the way Third World countries deal or try to deal with their drug problems. Unlike films like Midnight Express, which take the side of imprisoned Westerners and portray their captors as sadistic savages, Return to Paradise gives opportunity to Malaysian officials to make their case and explain why fighting the drug problem requires death penalty and harsh prison sentences.
Return to Paradise handless some important issues very well and its ending defies Hollywood conventions. But the film is far from being perfect. Character too many times deliberate on the same course of action and that takes its toll on the film's pacing. The acting is generally good - Vaughn is very convincing like a man forced to make difficult decision, while Joaquin Phoenix even more convincingly plays a man condemned to die. Unfortunately, Anne Heche is less convincing as the film's main female character. She made Beth utterly dislikeable and lacked chemistry with Vaughn, thus taking away credibility from the obligatory romantic subplot. Despite those flaws, Return to Paradise is a thought-provoking film that deserves recommendation.
RATING: 6/10 (++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on July 28th 2004)
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