Jail fate

Movie: Brokedown Palace

Our Rating: 2.50

Exotic vacations aren't all they're cracked up to be, at least according to Hollywood. "Midnight Express," in 1978, based on a true story, indicted the hellhole known as the Turkish prison system.

Southeast Asia, these days, is shaping up as the worst possible travel destination for free-spirited Americans seeking a hedonistic break from real life before answering the call of college and/or careers.

Last summer, in Return to Paradise, three affable guys on the loose in Malaysia got snared by a hashish bust, with disastrous consequences for one of the pals. This time, in "Brokedown Palace," it's the girls' turn, with two best friends -- played by Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale -- imprisoned in Thailand after romancing a charming young Australian who turns out to be a drug dealer.

Jonathan Kaplan, a successful director of dramas ("The Accused") and thrillers ("Unlawful Entry"), opens with a seductive minitravelogue, showing us dancers in traditional costumes and teeming Bangkok streets before introducing Yankee Hank Greene, an expatriate American lawyer played by Bill Pullman.

Alone in his office, the money-grubbing attorney listens to a cassette tape sent by the imprisoned Alice (Danes). "We shouldn't be here," she pleads. "We're from Ohio, for God's sake." It's Alice's fault, in fact, that she and Darlene (Beckinsale) chose to visit Thailand in the first place, instead of Hawaii. Once there, though, it seems like a smart choice, with ultracheap digs, spicy food and visits to shimmering golden palaces and inspiring temples.

Love comes calling, or so it would seem, with the arrival of brash, experienced tourist Nick Parks (an impressive Daniel LaPaine), a self-described software developer, ready and willing to show the girls around town. Soon enough, the Americans agree to take an impromptu trip to visit Nick in Hong Kong, thanks to plane tickets purchased by their new benefactor.

That holiday is unexpectedly cut short in a frightening scene at the airport, when Thai police and DEA officers suddenly stop Alice and Darlene, and retrieve a stock of heroin from their luggage. They're shipped off to a holding cell, and then to a grim women's prison, where the cramped inmates are given meager provisions and assigned to long hours of tough manual labor.

"Brokedown Palace" is reasonably suspenseful, with Hank and his Thai-born partner and wife (Jacqueline Kim) going to bat for their clients, after first securing a $15,000 retainer fee from Darlene's father. Various trials and hearings, offering hope for the girls' release, deliver tension, as does the possibility of escape.

The characterizations, though, created by rookie screenwriter David Arata, are underdeveloped, and neither Danes -- given to a lot of furrowing of her brows -- nor Beckinsale boast the instincts to give much gravity to their roles. Their temporary falling out, while in prison, seems contrived. So do the lines spoken by several other inmates.

There are strange personality reversals, too: Darlene's dad (Tom Amandes), portrayed as a loving, supportive family man, suddenly berates Alice, blaming her for his daughter's troubles. And the generally sleazy Hank, eager to dump his windfall into a new car, out of the blue decides to take the moral high road, tackling corruption in high places and investing emotional energy in the case.

"Brokedown Palace," ultimately, isn't as compelling as it might have been in other hands. It's a short, not-so-strange trip taken by a couple of girls who might just as easily be anguishing over the trouble of finding dates for the high-school prom.

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