Lewis, Sheriff and Tony are three friends vacationing in Malaysia. Sheriff and Tony eventually leave to pursue careers in New York, but Lewis stays behind to work with orangutans. Two years later, Sheriff and Tony learn that, because of their past actions, Lewis has been arrested for drug possession. With Lewis facing a death sentence, the friends are left with a difficult decision: return to Malaysia and split Lewis' sentence, or let him die.
_**Great moral conundrum and message, but too contrived**_ "Return to Paradise" (1998) is about three Americans in Malaysia. Two of them are friends from New York City (Vincent Vaughn and David Conrad) and the other they meet there, an environmental-hippie type (Joaquin Phoenix). The three have a great time partying together and then the two from New York go back to the grind in the USA. Two years later they find out that their friend in Malaysia has been in prison for having too much hashish, which the three purchased together. Due to the country's severe drug laws, those considered traffickers are put to death and, unfortunately, the hippie possessed beyond the limit. He'll hang in eight days unless the other two go back and they'll all get 3 years in prison; if only one goes back it's 6 years each. Will they go back? That's the set-up of the film and it's not a spoiler since this all unfolds in the first 20 minutes, which means that most of the rest of the movie takes place in New York and focuses on whether or not the other two will go back and save their friend. Keep in mind that this was a dude they met in Malaysia so it's not like they were bosom buddies from their youth or anything. The trailer of "Return to Paradise" miss-advertised the film as a thriller largely taking place in exotic SE Asia, but that's not the case. This is a drama that involves a moral conundrum, a Christ figure and possible redemption. The story concentrates on Vaughn and Anne Heche, the latter as the lawyer of the hippie who tries to convince the other two to go back to save their friend. Complicating the situation even further is the fact that there are no legal documents involved since Malaysia is a third world country and, as such, there's no guarantee that the two will "only" get three years. And what about the other potential negative possibilities, like never making it out of the hellhole alive? This is a top of the line film and the producers went all-out to serve up a quality picture; for instance, the Malaysian prison scenes are very convincing. Also, the actors are great across the board and Vaughn proves that he can nail a dramatic role. Moreover the moral is to die for, no pun intended. Unfortunately the actors are strapped to the contrivances of the plot and I had a hard time seeing them as real people in a real situation. In other words, it seemed like the characters do this-or-that merely because the screenplay says he or she is supposed to do this-or-that at that moment. And so I was never really able to embrace them as real people, but rather as puppets manipulated by the script. Still, it's not bad and it's worth catching if you like the actors and the story trips your trigger. The film runs 111 minutes and was shot in New York City, Thailand, New Jersey, Philadelphia and China. GRADE: C+