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BROKEDOWN PALACE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Claire Danes, Kate Beckinsale, Bill Pullman, Lou Diamond Phillips, Daniel Lapaine
Director:  Jonathan Kaplan
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  Talent Files, Theatrical Trailer
Length:  100 Minutes
Release Date:  February 15, 2000

Film **1/2

I might as well give up my supposed rule about not comparing a film I’m viewing to another one I’ve seen in the past.  I never can follow it anyway.  I tried to watch Brokedown Palace with a fresh point of view, but I’ll be damned if I couldn’t stop from thinking to myself more than once, “Diet Midnight Express”.

Which is not to say that this picture doesn’t have its share of favorable attributes, not the least of which are the performances by the two female leads.  But both Midnight Express and the more recent Return to Paradise cast too great a shadow over this movie, which doesn’t have quite enough of its own light to shine through and create its own image.

Alice (Danes) and Darlene (Beckinsale) are fresh out of high school with, as Yogi Berra would say, their whole futures ahead of them.  The long time best friends had planned a summer trip to Hawaii, but at Alice’s suggestion, they head for Thailand instead…a seemingly exotic locale where they can spend a summer having fun for a pittance of cash.  They decide not to tell their parents about their change in destination…first mistake.

While there, they decide to pose as wealthy tourists to swim in a luxury hotel’s pool.  They even charge drinks to a false room number…second mistake.  They are helped out of a tight jam by a friendly Australian fellow, Nick (Lapaine).  After a few fun filled days together, forming a new friendship (and possibly sticky romantic attachments), they take him up on his offer to fly them to Hong Kong.  They trust him…third mistake.

While waiting to board the plane, they are seized by Thai authorities.  One of their bags is harboring several kilos of cocaine.  And the nightmare begins. 

It’s interesting how much the true element of horror has changed in our culture over the years.  When we go see a mask wearing killer or a haunted house, we shriek in fun.  But the notion of being trapped in a foreign land, where American justice means nothing and a crime like drug smuggling can mean death and torture…that’s truly terrifying.  And we experience it all through these girls’ eyes.  They don’t speak the language.  One gets tricked into signing a confession she thought was merely her statement.  There’s no phone call, no legal rights.  They had drugs in their possession, and they were leaving the country.  Open and shut case, and soon both girls are “lucky” to be facing a sentence of only 33 years.

The only glimmer of salvation comes in the form of an American lawyer known as “Hank the Yank” (Pullman).  He listens to a tape of their story made by Alice.  He is both intrigued and skeptical.  He’s never quite sure if he believes their story about the young man who maliciously used them, then seemed to vanish without a trace. 

There is a retrial…a scene where Hank’s wife has to quietly translate for the girls what is being said, as their fates are being decided.  But no matter how innocent they may be of anything apart from being naïve and stupid, the fact of the matter is they were found with the drugs on them.  That would be hard to overlook, even in an American court.

The rest of the picture falls along familiar lines, including the obligatory attempted escape sequence, the run ins with a fellow prisoner who seems out to make trouble for the American girls, and the underhanded dealings that continually fall through.  One way in which this film falls short of its predecessors is in its failure to truly convey the horrors of a foreign prison.  Perhaps because the lead characters are female, the decision was made to generally avoid the scenes of violence that were so stomach-churning in Midnight Express.  Maybe it was the right choice, but still…I felt an important aspect of the story had been glossed over.  It’s kind of hard to imagine a film could deal with this subject matter and still manage a PG 13 rating.

And I’m still in debate with myself over the ending of the picture, which I won’t reveal here.  In one respect, I was pleased that the film had the courage to defy the typically scripted ending for such a scenario, but at the same time, I found the choice of resolution a little hard to accept.  It was emotional, but not entirely believable or palatable.

Claire Danes is wonderful as the forceful, determined Alice, in a performance that hearkens back to her better days of Romeo and Juliet rather than her misguided Mod Squad episode.  The lovely Kate Beckinsale is equally good as Darlene, the more gullible and perhaps weaker of the two.  Their work is the best aspect of the film.

In the end, the picture didn’t leave me cold, but rather, kind of lukewarm.  Structurally, it seemed unable to break from the mold of Midnight Express, and only ended up limiting itself in the long run. 

Video ***

Typical Fox transfer…good, but not great.  No anamorphic enhancement, but generally speaking, this is a quality transfer from a clean print, featuring sharp, crisp images throughout and only a light smattering of noticeable grain from time to time.  Overall, I’d say the coloring was maybe a click less bright than I would have liked, including the many daylit outdoor scenes in Thailand.  Everything seemed just a shade less than truly natural…not a major complaint, just noteworthy. 

Audio **1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack is mostly good, but unspectacular, with only a few scenes offering real dynamic counterpoint to the flat level dialogue and din sequences. 

Features *1/2

Just some talent files and a trailer, though the menus have animation and sound.

Summary:

Brokedown Palace doesn’t offer much new.  The performances are good, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this story has been done before, and better.