The worst nightmare of every adventurous world traveler, and anyone who has stepped over legal boundaries in pursuit of a good time, is at the heart of "Return to Paradise." The message of this thriller of conscience from "Sleeping With the Enemy" director Joseph Ruben: A harmless indulgence of youth may lead to dire consequences.
Sheriff (Vince Vaughn), Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) and Tony (David Conrad), recent college graduates, see the sights and sow wild oats in Malaysia before reaping a bitter harvest. "It's like God's own bathtub," Sheriff exclaims, raving about favorite passions -- free love, coconuts and mellow hash -- he's indulged while in the island paradise.
It's that last item that ultimately has the greatest long-term impact. Two years after Sheriff and Tony have returned to New York to the reality of martinis, city girls and their working lives, they hear frightening news.
Lewis, who stayed behind to work with endangered orangutans in Borneo, is about to be executed on drug charges related to a stash of hash that he inherited when the three parted. His survival hinges on his old friends' return to Malaysia, to testify on his behalf and risk stiff sentences of their own. Sheriff, a limo driver in Brooklyn, and Tony, a successful Manhattan engineer about to be married, would essentially risk losing everything.
The film is loosely based on 1990 French film "Force Majeure" but Ruben and screenwriters Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson dose the potent story with nearly believable complications.
Anne Heche, ("Six Days, Seven Nights"), demonstrating impressive talents as a dramatic actress and comedienne, is brash, sexy and desperate as Beth, an attorney whose client will die in days unless she works a miracle.
Sheriff, sympathetic to Lewis' plight and attracted by Beth's charisma, apparently lacks the selflessness for the task at hand. Vaughn, a stand-out in "Swingers," leavens swaggering macho and fine comic timing with a smoldering screen presence as a man transformed by troubling events. Conrad is less effective as Tony, an ambitious professional who quickly volunteers for the mission. Phoenix, such a revelation in "To Die For," gets at the right mix of vulnerability and sensitivity as a trust-fund kid who has suffered immeasurably at the hands of his captors.
"Return to Paradise" thrives on an ably conveyed dread and sense of impending doom, effectively engaging viewers and delivering an unpredictable conclusion.