Despite improbable plot, 'Paradise' is suspenseful

August 14, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

A guy you hardly know, save for a few weeks spent clowning around on a tropical island, is going to die unless you agree to spend up to six years rotting away in a Third World prison. What would you do?

That's the dilemma presented by "Return to Paradise," a suspenseful, enjoyably not-what-you'd-expect morality play. Featuring a wonderfully nuanced performance from Anne Heche, the film suffers in the end from a script more interested in piquing the conscience than fleshing out its plot and characters.

Vince Vaughn and David Conrad are Sheriff and Tony, two young guys who decide that the best way to celebrate their coming entrance into the workaday world is to spend a summer trolling the depths of debauchery in Malaysia. Joined by the idealistic Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix), who plans a career protecting orangutans in Borneo, the three spend their summer vacation overindulging in drugs, booze and sex.

And then the summer's over; the three part, with Sheriff and Tony heading back to New York while Lewis stays behind. And that, they all believe, is that.

But it isn't. One night two years later, a lawyer, Beth (Heche), shows up with news that Lewis has been thrown in jail for drug trafficking -- he had been left with the trio's stash of hash -- and will be executed in just a few days. The only way out is for Sheriff and/or Tony to return to Malaysia and admit complicity in the offense. If one returns, he'll spend six years in jail; if two return, they'll spend three years each. Either way, Lewis lives.

Neither Sheriff nor Tony knows at first what to do. Tony's about to marry a woman who's not crazy about putting things off for another three years, while Sheriff's a decidedly me-first kind of guy. But Beth, who's up against a serious time clock, can be pretty convincing.

"Return to Paradise" asks the viewer to swallow a lot: that such a deal would be possible, that Lewis would spend two years in hell without ever mentioning his buddies' involvement, that the State Department wouldn't have tried to do something long before things ever reached this point.

The film also features Jada Pinkett Smith as a reporter whose presence serves as little more than a way to twist the plot one more time and provide a handy scapegoat.

Still, director Joseph Ruben maintains a pace that keeps the suspense -- will they or won't they? -- at the proper pitch. And the film has a laudable habit of not taking the path easiest traveled.

'Return to Paradise'

Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix

Directed by Joseph Ruben

Released by Polygram

Rated R (language, drug content, some sexuality and a scene of violence)

Running time 114 minutes

Sun score ** 1/2

Pub Date: 8/14/98

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