An undernourished melodrama about the moral dilemma confronted by two young men whose buddy faces a death sentence in Southeast Asia, "Return to Paradise" offers disappointingly conventional treatment of an intriguing story that could have used either more narrative zing or greater thematic complexity.

An undernourished melodrama about the moral dilemma confronted by two young men whose buddy faces a death sentence in Southeast Asia, “Return to Paradise” offers disappointingly conventional treatment of an intriguing story that could have used either more narrative zing or greater thematic complexity. Pic’s dramatic fulcrum provides a measure of undeniable gravity and ticking-clock suspense, but middle-of-the-road approach positions this closer to erstwhile issue-oriented TV movies than to the kind of edgy, suspenseful fare that can lure young viewers into theaters. B.O. prospects for this Polygram release look bland.

Pic’s premise, involving a young American’s imprisonment in a Third World hellhole on drug charges, conjures up automatic memories of “Midnight Express,” whose souped-up melodrama, violence and sense of indignation made it a favorite with young audiences a generation ago. Lightning hasn’t struck twice, however, as new effort spends most of its time dawdling around New York as the prisoner’s friends try to convince themselves to return to “paradise” to prevent some literal judicial overkill.

Opening 15 minutes effectively present the innocuous fun pursued by three Yanks trying to extend their irresponsible youth by roaming around Asia. “It was a paradise of rum, girls and good cheap hash,” reflects Sheriff (Vince Vaughn), the most rambunctious of the trio, over home movie-ish images of him, Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) and Tony (David Conrad) horsing around in immature but harmless ways, even as they skirt serious trouble here and there.

Two years after saying good-bye to earnest do-gooder Lewis, who stayed behind to help save endangered orangutans in Borneo, Sheriff is brought up short by some news delivered by a woman he meets in the course of his job as a limo driver: Lewis was arrested by Malaysian authorities and, because he was found with more than 100 grams of hash, was tried and convicted as a drug dealer. The death sentence is due to be carried out in eight days, and he will be spared only if one or both of his drug-using cohorts comes back to do time — six years if just one returns, or three years apiece if both surrender.

The bearer of these tidings is Beth (Anne Heche), who says she is Lewis’ American lawyer and periodically has to fend off the aggressive overtures of tabloid reporter M.J. Major (Jada Pinkett Smith), who’s gotten wind of the story. Tony, a rising architect who is engaged to be married, displays normal human decency in quickly acceding to Beth’s request to help save Lewis’ life, provided Sheriff agrees as well.

But Sheriff, who has no emotional attachments and is technically responsible for Lewis’ predicament due to his unthinking behavior in Malaysia, would appear to have neither moral compass nor conscience, as he spurns Beth even after watching a wrenching illicit video of Lewis in prison, and claims that he’s “off the hook” due to Tony’s acquiescence. He is especially affronted when the desperate Beth first offers him money, then appears to offer herself in an effort to convince him otherwise.

The involving situation and relatively credible characters notwithstanding, the problem with the film’s first hour stems from a combination of lack of urgency and curious inattention to practical matters that, in real life, would concern anyone facing the circumstances laid out here. Beth schedules virtually all her meetings with Sheriff and Tony at meals, which not only proves dramatically monotonous but creates a great deal of wasted time in between, time Beth generally spends fretting in her deluxe hotel room.

A request to see some sort of written guarantee about the legal deal is quickly deflected by Beth, and the men never pose other pertinent questions regarding when they’ll have to leave in order to get to Malaysia in time, what sort of proceedings they’ll face, where the U.S. government stands vis-a-vis the case, the involvement of other lawyers and so on.

It comes as little surprise that, after the endless hand-wringing and hesitation, all three are on board a plane that gets them back to Malaysia with just one day to spare. A disturbing reunion between Sheriff and Lewis, who has suffered all this time in atrocious conditions, is followed by some equivocation on Sheriff and Tony’s part, a surprise revelation by Beth, and tense courtroom sessions in which rules and attitudes quite different from those in the West come to bear on Sheriff and Lewis’ fates.

Joseph Ruben’s straightforward direction does little to energize a script first penned by Bruce Robinson (“The Killing Fields”) and rewritten by Wesley Strick (“Cape Fear”). None of the characters is given much depth or meaningful backgrounding, leaving the capable thesps with plenty of anguish and emotion to play but not much else.

Production values are decent, with locations in Hong Kong, Macao, Thailand and (for the prison interiors) Philadelphia effectively standing in for Malaysia , although Mark Mancina’s score is ponderous.

Return to Paradise

Production

A Polygram Films release of a Polygram Filmed Entertainment presentation of a Propaganda Films production in association with Tetragram. Produced by Alain Bernheim, Steve Golin. Executive producers, David Arnold, Ezra Swerdlow. Directed by Joseph Ruben. Screenplay, Wesley Strick, Bruce Robinson.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Reynaldo Villalobos; editors, Andrew Mondshein, Craig McKay; music, Mark Mancina; production designer, Bill Groom; art director, Dennis Bradford; set decorator, Betsy Klompus; sound (Dolby digital), William Sarokin; assistant director, Michael E. Steele. Reviewed at Polygram screening room, Beverly Hills, July 29, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Sheriff - Vince Vaughn Beth - Anne Heche Lewis - Joaquin Phoenix Tony - David Conrad Kerrie - Vera Farmiga Ravitch - Nick Sandow M.J. Major - Jada Pinkett Smith

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