Movie Magazine International

Return to Paradise

USA - 1998

Movie Review By Heather Clisby

In "Return to Paradise" the bonds of friendship and strength of character are put to the ultimate test. If you're looking for more than fluff in your video, this film is an ideal choice: It will cause you to ask the question: Just how much would you be willing to give up for a friend?

Sheriff, Lewis and Tony are three young pals having the time of their lives in Malaysia; they've found a tropical paradise with endless amounts of girls, drugs and exotic adventures. The day comes to leave but sensitive, environmentally-conscious Lewis, played by Joaquin Phoenix, opts to stay behind and help the Orangutans. Sheriff and Tony return to New York and go their separate ways.

Fast forward two years later when a sassy blonde named Beth shows up out of nowhere with the ultimate favor to ask Sheriff and Tony. Apparently, the day they left Malaysia, local police found a bulk amount of hash in Lewis's possession - a frivolous purchase made by all three men. The country looks harshly on outsiders who disregard their strict drug laws and Lewis was sent to a dark, dingy, soul-sucking, life-threatening prison and will be hanged in eight days.

Unless. Unless Sheriff and Tony would be willing to drop their lives and each return to spend three years each in the same hellish situation. If only one returns, then that man must forfeit six years. That's the big, giant rub. Tony is a successful architect engaged to be married and Sheriff is . . . well, getting along. The clock is ticking and hard decisions must be made quickly.

Though Vince Vaughn is excellent as the morally tortured Sheriff and Anne Heche is raw and passionate as Lewis's stressed-out lawyer, it is Joaquin Phoenix's performance that blew me away. Directed by Joseph Ruben, "Return to Paradise" is meaty without being moralistic or predictable. However, I would've liked to seen more background on the men's relationships prior to their tropical vacation - were they childhood pals, casual acquaintances or college buddies? History would've helped discern just how much loyalty and sacrifice we might expect from the men on the outside.

How do we measure the value of our lives? The lives of others? In one disturbing scene, Sheriff blurts out his predicament to his gruff father who doesn't see the seriousness of the situation. "You're not doing much with your life anyway," he tells his son, who knows the truth when he hears it, "you might as well go." It was a quiet but devastating punch in the gut. With strong views on trust, justice, media and karma, this flick is no lite-lunch.

© 1999 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 3/10/99

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