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Return to Sender

If you need new evidence of Hollywood's current impoverishment of thought and deed, look no further than the ongoing siege against European movies. Not content to crank out sequels and recycle old TV shows into the multiplexes, the safety-first moguls have "remade" (translation: filched and dumbed-down), among others, the Godard classic Breathless, the crackling assassin caper La Femme Nikita (reconstituted as the tepid Point of No Return), the French domestic comedy Three Men and a Cradle (reborn as the overly cute Three Men and a Baby) and the chilling French-Dutch mystery The Vanishing (regurgitated as a spineless Jeff Bridges vehicle with the same title).

Now director Joseph Ruben (The Stepfather, Sleeping With the Enemy), a pair of scriptwriters and a cast of hardbodies have laid waste to a pretty fair French thriller called Force Majeur, released in 1990. The new incarnation is called Return to Paradise, and it is said to be "loosely based" on its model. It's also loosely based on logic, narrative and believability.

How's this for a snappy plotline? Three American twentysomethings vacation in exotic Malaysia, where the women are beautiful and the hashish is cheap. Two of the boys, Sheriff (Vince Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad), return to New York, while the third, Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix), stays on to save endangered orangutans in the rainforest. Problem: Two years later, Sheriff and Tony learn that Lewis is not among the monkeys but in a Malaysian jail, facing the death penalty. That's because police found the slab of hash they carelessly left behind at his bungalow. Solution: If Sheriff and Tony agree to return to Panang and serve three years each, their friend's life will be spared by a Malaysian judge. If not, Louie gets the noose.

Despite the obvious improbability of it, this has the makings of a pretty good drama of conscience--a meditation on responsibility, character and courage wholly appropriate to the times. But Ruben and company have reduced that drama to movie-of-the-week simplicities and cliches. They've diminished all the urgency and put out the fire.

Item: The "do the crime/do the time" issue (which really shouldn't be an issue at all, should it?) is chewed on so endlessly that we're sick of all the repetitious soul-searching by the time the boys come to a decision, fully an hour and fifteen minutes into the proceedings.

Item: The relentless lawyer (Anne Heche) who brings Sheriff and Tony the bad news about her client, Lewis, and throws them into a moral quandary unexpectedly winds up in bed with her toughest sell. This is more than a romantic subplot--it's a dramatic misstep that disastrously alters the movie's course.

Item: After all is said and done, an aggressive newspaper reporter turns out to be the villain of the piece. When in doubt, it says here, always kill the messenger. But let bogus romance live on.

The cast is mostly decent. As the cynical, self-absorbed limousine driver, Sheriff, Vince Vaughn delivers on the promise of his debut in Swingers, and David Conrad brings some nice shading to Tony, who risks a promising career and marriage by wanting to do the right thing.

As for Heche, whose appearances inWag the Dog and Six Days, Seven Nights clearly signal a rising career, you gotta ask: Why? Every time I watch this oddly distracted actress, she seems to be thinking about anything but the work at hand. Her gestures look inappropriate to her characters' mental states, her inflections at odds with emotions.

"I have a man's life in my hands!" Beth tells Sheriff. But she may as well be saying, "Pastrami on rye, and hold the mustard." In Paradise, I found her not credible as a sharp lawyer, a devoted sister or a woman seized suddenly by love.

But writers Wesley Strick (Final Analysis, The Saint) and Bruce Robinson (The Killing Fields) should probably take most of the heat for wasting a good idea. They not only rip off Force Majeur but also the minor classic Midnight Express, which made a far steamier, more memorable drama of illegal drugs, foreign prisons and crises of conscience. From its blandly "ironic" title to its enervating romance to its endless empty talk, Return to Paradise misses the boat. It seems destined for quick oblivion on the back shelves at Blockbuster.

Return to Paradise.
Screenplay by Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson. Directed by Joseph Ruben. With Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, David Conrad and Joaquin Phoenix.

 
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