Rather like Safe Men, Return to Paradise, directed by Joseph Ruben (Sleeping With the Enemy, Money Train), is worth seeing even though it has a tendency to make light of criminal behavior. In this case, the criminal behavior is drug-taking. Three American friends, Sheriff (Vince Vaughn), Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) and Tony (David Conrad) vacation in Malaysia, or “Paradise” as the billboards advertise it and as they at first find it. It is a paradise “of rum, girls and good, cheap hash.” At the end of their stay, Sheriff and Tony leave the rest of their supply of the good, cheap hash with Lewis, who instead of returning with them to New York intends to proceed to Borneo where he will save the orang-utan. Unfortunately for Lewis, the Malaysian authorities take a less relaxed attitude towards smoking hash, and when they apprehend him with over 100 grams of the stuff, they sentence him to hang.
Back in New York, it is two years later and almost execution eve before Sheriff, a limousine driver, and Tony, an architect, learn of Lewis’s plight. His lawyer, Beth (Anne Heche), tells them that if they both go back they will each get three years in the hell hole of Penang Prison, but Lewis’s life will be spared. If only one goes, Lewis will still live, but his savior will get six years. At first Tony, an architect about to get married, says he’ll do the three years but not the six. Sheriff says no to both, and when Beth offers him money, he becomes indignant. “People like you think you can buy people like me,” he says and walks out on her. It is, he thinks, “a morality I don’t have” to sacrifice himself like that.
But Beth, relying on Lewis’s insight that Sheriff is better than he knows keeps working on him, all the while trying to fend off the interest of a tabloid newspaper reporter, M.J. Major (Jada Pinkett Smith). She has to explain that publicity could be lethal. In a previous case involving an Australian kid, when his mother made it a cause célèbre before the world, they hanged him a week early to shut her up. Now I yield to no one in my dislike of the media and am ready to believe a self-important “investigative” journalist capable of anything. But M.J.’s later perfidy just doesn’t make sense. She has extracted from Beth, in return for three days of not reporting the story, the rights to an exclusive interview with Lewis, if he is released. Why would she queer this deal?
Yet the painful stirring of Sheriff’s conscience is nicely managed, and the image of a man reluctantly dragged into a kind of heroism and self-sacrifice would in itself have made the film worth seeing — if only the filmmakers could have resisted the temptation to make Beth and Sheriff fall in love. By the end it is made pretty clear that he does what he does more for her sake than for any sense of honor or loyalty to his friend that may have been awakened in him, and so the moral drama is considerably diminished in forcefulness. Even so, the film does have its powerful moments, especially as the gallows looms and all of Lewis’s resources as a typically spoiled American child are stripped away from him. Something tells you that none of these guys is going to find paradise anymore in rum, girls and good, cheap hash.