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Brokedown Palace

Fox Home Video

Starring Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale

Written by David Arata
Adapted from a story by Adam Fields and David Arata

Directed by Jonathan Kaplan

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Brokedown Palace is one of those movies about American tourists unwittingly and/or naively ensnared into the high-risk practice of international drug trafficking. It's not a prolific genre - 1979's grueling Midnight Express is still the gold standard - but each new release strikes a chord. The idea of innocent Americans imprisoned by corrupt and barbarian foreign justice systems has provocative and stirring potential.

Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale star as traveling teenagers following a whim to Thailand. After an unnecessary narration informs us that Alice (Danes) is the bad girl and Darlene (Beckinsale) is the good girl, the best friends land in Bangkok, meet a handsome stranger, and are subsequently arrested with a mysterious motherlode of heroin in their luggage.

In Thailand's penal system we get all the obligatory scenes — the girls are cruelly interrogated and pressured to sign confessions in a foreign tongue, they're beaten with crude objects and subject to exotic illnesses, they try to bribe their escape and enlist a shady American lawyer who grows in virtue as he becomes a believer in the girls' innocence — but none of them are very good.

As directed by Jonathan Kaplan, the typically very emotionally charged filmmaker behind The Accused and Unlawful Entry, Brokedown Palace feels like a staged-reading of a rough script outline. Danes and Beckinsale take their arrest in unusual stride for two immature teens, who a few nights before dealt with their mutual affections for the same man as a near-crisis.

But maybe they aren't worried because this Thai lock-up is tame compared to most movie prisons. Sure there's a cockroach or two, but that's no different than their seedy hotel room. Their whole experience in this movie seems designed to be only generically worrying and unconvincingly sterile in its squalor. As if producers feared that Danes' teenage fans wouldn't have the constitution to handle a Midnight Express-style gallery of terrors. That may very well be, but begs the question: why then make the movie in the first place?

In addition to their emotional dislocation from their environs, both actresses completely fail to imbue their dull characters with any distinguishing features. Each is given an occasional scene during to flex their dramatic muscles, but adrift in the listless surroundings those rare instances of talent come off like standalone audition scenes for something better.

The idea that these two blank slates might spend their lives in a foreign jail on false charges is so uninteresting, one pines for the obnoxious silliness of Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams in Dick. Or at least for Kaplan to inject a sensational women-in-prison lesbian scene to liven up the proceedings.

But no, the only spark this movie has to offer is the dynamic superstar presence of Bill Pullman as "Yankee" Hank, a shyster barrister with a heart of gold and all the charisma and intelligence of a bamboo toothbrush. The dimmest of armchair lawyers should be a good half-hour ahead of his character in pursuing clues to prove the girls' innocence; that is, if they can stay awake that long.

Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and both 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital. Trailer, keep case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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