RETURN TO PARADISE
This is one of those "it could happen to you, and thank God it didnt"
movies. It all starts innocently enough, with three guys on an extended
vacation to Malaysia. Two of them, "Sheriff" (Vaughn) and Tony
(David Conrad) are friends from New York; the third, Lewis (Phoenix), is
an environmentalist they met along the way. Theyre there to have fun,
make love to beautiful native women, and smoke the best (and cheapest) hashish
theyve ever encountered. In fact, the stuff is so cheap, they buy
too much. When their money runs out, Sheriff and Tony must return to their
reality in New York, but Lewis plans to remain and volunteer on a project
to help save abused orangutans.
After two years have passed, Tony and Sheriff have lost contact, Tony
is engaged to be married, and Sheriff has an unfulfilling job driving rented
limos. One evening, a woman named Beth (Heche) climbs into his car and asks
him to drive around. She then informs him that she is a lawyer representing
Lewis, who has spent the last two years in a Malaysian prison for drug trafficking.
It seems the police discovered him, one man alone with all that excess hash,
and convicted him on the spot. He has spent over 700 days and nights in
a squalid, reeking prison cell, and is sentenced to hang in eight days.
But there is one way out: If Sheriff and Tony agree to return to Malaysia
and admit to their part-ownership of the drugs, the three of them would
only share a possession charge. They would each have to spend three years
in that very same prison. If one of them goes, hell be in for six.
But Lewis would be spared.
So begins an incredible psychological journey, bringing into play every
emotion in the spectrum. Beth begins working on the men, trying sweetness
and threats, appealing to their valor, always aware of the shrinking time
until Lewiss hearing. Sheriff is weighing the fact that his life has
been bereft of honor and of meaning, and that he is partly responsible for
the chain of events leading up to Lewiss arrest. And Tony is trying
to explain to his intended bride why he is considering leaving her for three
years (at least). And added to this is the fact that if one goes and the
other stays, its a 6-year sentence. Is it to be all for one, or every
man for himself? The dynamic at work among these three is something to watch.
Lewis is one of the nicest people they had ever met, selfless to the
core. But is he worth such a large part of their lives? And what about this
prison? Is there torture? Disease? Overcrowding? How do they know they wont
all be hanged? These are the questions Beth tries to answer; she
has maintained contact with Malaysian officials, who have apparently agreed
that each man would have his own cell and there would be no physical abuse.
But even so . . .
The powerful portrayals in this film are rivaled by its powerful story.
The plot is so richly detailed that, though it seems a ridiculously simple
premise, it is brought to life with horriffic realism. There really isnt
much violent footage, but what there is is hard to watch. When Sheriff visits
Lewis in prison, and Lewis tries to describe his life of the last two years,
knowing that his friend has still not yet agreed to the deal . . . what
Heches acting is exquisite. Her character is so multi-faceted;
her ability to remain seemingly detached, despite her own personal connection
to the case, is astounding. This is one of the most difficult characters
I could imagine having to play, and she does it with grit and grace.
I find no flaws in this movie, unless you consider the unpleasant subject matter. Of course, the media is the real villain as usual, but in this case, the scenario is very believable. The four leads turn in some of the best performances Ive seen in a long time, and Reynaldo Villaloboss cinema is top-notch. If you love good cinema, do not miss it. But be prepared: it isn't easy. *****
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