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Brokedown Palace

movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Brokedown Palace

Starring: Claire Danes, Kate Beckinsale
Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 1000 Minutes
Release Date: August 1999
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Bill Pullman, Lou Diamond Phillips, Jacqueline Kim, Daniel Lapaine, Amanda De Cadenet, Paul Walker

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

When Mark Twain wrote about innocents abroad, he had no idea just how much trouble spoiled American kids could get into when traveling outside their own liberal democracy. But Joseph Ruben certainly did when he directed last year's "Return to Paradise," about two New York City men who are strongly advised to return to Malaysia to confess their part in a drug crime lest their friend get hanged. Like Ruben's film, Jonathan Kaplan's "Brokedown Palace" is about motifs like responsibility, conscience and redemption, but his three principals do not give him the strong performances turned out by Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche and Joaquin Phoenix in last year's dramatic movie about a similar subject. For all its vivid camera work in photogenic Bangkok, Thailand, "Brokedown Palace" is the sort of melodrama that would fit more into a quality TV movie niche than it does on the big screen. The film is absorbing at times--a movie about teens which, like "Election," is really directed toward a more mature audience--but on the whole rings false because the lawyer's redemption is not at all credible and the final affirmation of one of the young women is uncalled for and thereby bogus.

Despite these faults what you've got to hand to the production team is its guts in daring to imagine a pattern of corruption in one of America's friendly nations abroad, a design which, however exaggerated, has a ring of authenticity. The government of Thailand would obviously not welcome the filming of this movie in Bangkok. (It was shot in the Philippines.) After all, if you were a high-ranking minister in charge of film regulation in a tightly governed monarchy (actually more of a military dictatorship), would you welcome a shoot whose script reveals your beloved land as a Third-World stinkhole?

The innocents abroad, teens Alice (Claire Danes) and her bosom buddy Darlene (Kate Beckinsale), are presented by their folks with trips to Hawaii for their high-school graduation. Instead they head out secretly to Thailand because the fun that should await them there seems less "middle class." Indeed. After sneaking into a fancy hotel pool, they are caught charging their drinks to an actual guest's room and are bailed out by charming 20-something Australian businessman, Nick Parks (Daniel Lapaine), who wines and dines the two and generously gives them two tickets to Hong Kong for the weekend. He is allegedly to join them later. Unbeknownst to the girls, Nick is a drug smuggler responsible for stashing a stash of heroin into their luggage where it will presumably be picked up by an accomplice in Hong Kong. Seized at the airport by police, the girls are tried, quickly found guilty, and hire money-grubbing, ambulance-chasing ex-patriate lawyer Hank the Yank (Bill Pullman) to help them out.

Director Kaplan places heavy emphasis on the tense friendship between the two teens. Though they have known each other for years seemingly without conflict, Alice deeply resents Darlene's behavior in stealing away the dashing Australian with whom Darlene spends the night. When Darlene convinces Alice to fly with her to Hong Kong only to be arrested along with her, Alice, already on edge from the romantic interlude, suspects Darlene of yet another, far more serious betrayal. Yet when put into a primitive Thai jail to serve a sentence of 33 years, they stick together, surrounded by women prisoners and guards whose language they do not speak. When the crunch comes and Alice has a chance to free her friend, she must decide how far she will go--just how precious their lifelong friendship has been.

Danes has done better work in the edgy, postmodern "Romeo and Juliet" and a year after that in "The Rainmaker," while some believe that Beckinsale should have been Oscar- nominated for her role in last year's "The Last Days of Disco." Their talent notwithstanding, they have little of substance to work with this time around, coming off like a couple of foolish, banal kids--one naive enough to sign a statement (actually a confession) written in Thai, the other flustered enough to think she owes her idiotic friend a huge favor despite her being conned into signing on to the fateful trip to Hong Kong. Bill Pullman comes off the best, as expected, as a sleazy lawyer who sees better opportunities defending rich kids in a faraway place than he could find in a far more prosperous country that for all its litigiousness has too darn many attorneys. Kaplan takes some fairly hackneyed tourist shots of the famed temple area in Bangkok, the seedy, commercial side streets, and best of all the rank prisons in which inmates have to shout in a group to their visitors across thirty feet of space. But the movie will have served its purpose if only to warn prospective tourists headed for foreign lands to check their luggage before heading to the airport and once again before passing through customs. After all, what chance have you got to be found not guilty when everyone from the hotel bellmen to the Minister of Justice is on the take--not to forget high U.S. officials in our embassies abroad--their financial assets dependent on how many unsuspecting tourists they can railroad to the brig?

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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