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by Jim Wunderle

"Return to Paradise"

Directed by: Joseph Ruben

Starring: Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Joaquin Phoenix, David Conrad

Rated: R

The production team behind "Return to Paradise" has impeccable credentials when it comes to making films in the "emotional thriller" genre.

Screenwriter Bruce Robinson wrote "The Killing Fields," and Wesley Strick gave us the screenplay for Scorsese's remake of "Cape Fear," as well as "Arachnophobia" and "Wolf."

Joseph Ruben first gained notice in 1987 with "The Stepfather" and has since directed "Sleeping With the Enemy" and "The Good Son" among others. He seems to gravitate to projects that have somewhat of an emotional edge to them.

That's certainly the case with his latest film, "Return to Paradise," a film which is based on the 1989 French movie, "Force Majeure." There are a lot of different elements including one "timely" subplot in "Return to Paradise," and while not nearly as good a film as "Midnight Express," it's not a lame rehashing (no pun intended) of it, either.

As the film opens, we're introduced to three young Americans, new friends who have met while on extended vacation in Malaysia. The trio spends the time romancing the local young women, carousing at the bars and taking advantage of the very cheap price of hashish.

Their time is coming to an end, though, as Sheriff (Vince Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad) prepare to head back to New York. Staying behind is the altruistic and gentle-spirited Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix). He's going to help an Asian animal rights group save the endangered orangutan.

As Tony and Sheriff are leaving, Lewis tries to give them their share of the hash. Saying they wouldn't try to get aspirin out of a country like Malaysia, they pitch the stuff in the trash, and off they go.

Cut to two years later, New York City.

Sheriff is a limo driver and Tony, engaged to be married, works as a construction engineer. They're approached by an attorney, Beth Eastern (Anne Heche), who tells them a rather harrowing tale.

It seems the day they left Malaysia, the cops came to their rented hut and found not only Lewis' stash but the big chunk of hash in the garbage can. The total amount was enough to qualify Lewis as a trafficker, and after exhausting all of his appeals, he's to be hanged in eight days.

There's an interesting twist, however.

If Sheriff and Tony go back to Malaysia and own up to their part in the crime, each will serve three years, and Lewis will not hang. If only one goes, he'll serve six years and still save Lewis.

The rest of the film revolves around the moral dilemma faced by the two young men (especially Sheriff) and Beth's devotion to her seemingly doomed client.

The "timely" subplot, while adding to the overall story a great deal, is awful in the individual scenes. Jada Pinkett Smith, in the only bad performance in the film, is a journalist who wants to break this story wide open, thinking that an international story will garner public sympathy.

Beth, on the other hand, realizes that these things can backfire and tries to get the press to keep a lid on the situation, at least for a while. Had this device just been mentioned and implied, "Return to Paradise" would have been better off. The scenes between Heche and Smith are stiff and contrived.

There are a few plot holes and lapses in continuity here, as well, but it's a good, and admittedly, disturbing, story that's well-acted (mostly) and for the most part an engaging film.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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