`Brokedown' needs a major repair job

August 13, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

One of these days, the entire continent of Asia is going to sue Hollywood for defamation of character. Until that happens, we'll be forced to suffer through films like "Brokedown Palace."

Like "Red Corner" and "Return to Paradise" before it, "Brokedown Palace" posits itself as a cautionary tale: Don't even think about breaking the law when playing the Ugly American tourist in Asia, for the corrupt and unenlightened legal system there will throw your fanny in jail quicker than you can say "no Bill of Rights." Once there, you'll be abused, starved and otherwise treated real shabbily. Even worse, none of the people around you will speak English! The heathens.

At least "Red Corner" and "Return to Paradise" presented moviegoers with some interesting characters to follow and had enough courage in their convictions to make the images look as grim as the events they were portraying. "Brokedown Palace," however, depicts the sort of third-world prison Nancy Drew might find herself in: The worst ignominies it forces its female population to endure are bad haircuts and the occasional cockroach. Even the guards look grandmotherly.

Bestest friends Alice and Darlene (Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale) are two American girls who, fresh out of high school and bored with their motel housekeeping jobs, decide to take the trip of their lives. On the spur of the moment (bad spur!), they pick Thailand; it seems exotic, and they have a friend who spent a summer there for just a few hundred bucks. What a place!

Things are going just fabulously until the ever-mischievous Alice convinces Darlene they deserve a taste of the good life. So they sneak into a five-star hotel, don bikinis and start ordering lots of margaritas.

Unfortunately, even Third World bellboys are smart enough to know a deadbeat when they see one, and it isn't long before the girls are about to get into some serious trouble.

But then it's Nick (Daniel Lapaine, letting his twinkling eyes and Australian accent do all the work) to the rescue. He convinces the hotel that they're with him, and before you can say "holy plot twist," he's making kissy-face with both of them.

If something tells you this is going to be bad, you're right. Nick talks Alice and Darlene into going to Hong Kong with him, but at the airport, the ugly truth is revealed: customs agents find heroin in Darlene's purse, and it's off to the Thai gulag for our gals. Where, of course, things get nasty.

Or at least as nasty as the film's glossy surface will allow.

Among its many shortcomings, "Brokedown Palace" displays an uncanny inability to back up its assertions. It tells us Alice is more the troublemaker than Darlene but, outside of a ludicrous diatribe from Darlene's father, never shows us anything to prove that point (well, Alice does show off her navel more than Darlene). And it tells us conditions inside the prison are awful, but somehow, the girls always seem nicely made up and properly coiffed.

Worse, the film never decides what it wants to be. Is it a legal thriller, with Bill Pullman looking properly concerned as the expatriate American attorney who tries to get the girls out of jail? A cautionary drug tale? A jail house drama? A suggestion that naive high school girls willing to fall for a British accent should not travel alone? An episode of "Dawson's Creek" set in Thailand?

The film also wastes a wonderful performance from Danes, who manages to come across as far more desperate and determined than director Jonathan Kaplan seems to have in mind. She's got the right idea, even if her makeup people don't.

`Brokedown Palace

'Starring Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale

Directed by Jonathan Kaplan

Released by 20th Century Fox

Running time: 96 minutes

Rated PG-13 (brief strong language, drug-related material and some violent content) Sun score: *1/2

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