[Originally written for Amazon in 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
In Malaysia, three young Americans with little else in common are united in a shared enthusiasm for beer, women, and righteous hashish. Eventually, “Sheriff” (Vince Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad) head back to New York. Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix), a spacey but good-hearted sort, stays on with the notion of helping save the orangutans. Two years later, a brassy lawyer (Anne Heche) shows up in Manhattan with the news that her client, Lewis, has spent the interim in Penang prison. Arrested for a prankish misdemeanor they all shared in, he’s taking the rap for something worse:the dope stash they left him holding was a fatal few grams over the limit. Unless his fellow Americans return voluntarily to (literally) share the weight, in eight days Lewis will be hanged as a drug trafficker.
Eight days is about as long as Return to Paradise stayed on theater screens—the victim, perhaps, of Anne Heche–Ellen DeGeneres burnout in the press, or just too damn many movies out there to keep track of. Whatever the reason, it’s a pity, because this is one of the most compelling movie-movies in recent memory. The screenplay turns the ethical-psychological thumbscrews with insidious effectiveness, despite the probability that the two writers brought separate agendas to the project—Wesley (Cape Fear) Strick working the complicity of the two home boys (each represents the halving of the other’s prison sentence if they both agree to go back), and Bruce (The Killing Fields) Robinson revving his engines for another faceoff of implacable East and irresponsible West. And director Joseph Ruben, specialist in serving up B-movie excitement with class-A skill (Dreamscape, The Stepfather), does his sleekest work yet.
But the real news is a trio of career-best performances: Phoenix, harrowing as a child-man whose sanity has been all but eaten away by terror; Vaughn limning a fascinating portrait of a man at war with himself, self-interest and furtive decency seesawing in his conscience; and Heche, part cagey poker player, part angel of mercy, mixing strength, delicacy, and desperation with devastating precision. Oscar blinked, three times. — Richard T. Jameson