Vince Vaughn, the forcefully intense young actor who was the breakout star of Swingers, is handsome in such a tall, swarthy, born-to-be-a-fashion-model way that I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me when, halfway through Return to Paradise, he began to resemble the young Marlon Brando. It’s something in the smile — the exotic lips that curl in lewd triumph — but, more than that, it’s the way his eyes can convey danger and anguish at the same time. Vaughn displays the makings of a major screen star as Sheriff, a glamorous bum who works as a limo driver and treats everyone around him with scowling indifference, all out of a deep need to trash his own life.
His redemption arrives through an eccentric twist. Return to Paradise is a movie that asks the question, Would you — would anyone — have what it takes to enter a filthy, squalid Third World prison and do years of time, voluntarily? That’s the situation that Sheriff and Tony (David Conrad), a yuppie engineer, find themselves in after they learn that their casual companion Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix), whom they left behind on a party-hearty jaunt through Malaysia, was arrested with a brick of hash. In just eight days, Lewis is scheduled to be executed for drug dealing. But if Sheriff and Tony agree to go back and serve three years apiece, the death sentence will be rescinded. Sheriff, in other words, is faced with a nearly impossible decision: He can enter hell, or he can avoid it by, in essence, killing his friend, damning himself to spiritual hell.
Directed by Joseph Ruben (Sleeping With the Enemy), Return to Paradise sounds as gimmicky as a Twilight Zone episode, but it’s not. The film tracks the week in which Sheriff struggles to discover his conscience, and it puts us right in touch with his squirmy, divided soul. The story does have its hard-to-swallow elements. Anne Heche, her luminescence set off by jarring cold-steel eyes, plays Beth, who shows up in Sheriff’s limo and announces that she’s Lewis’ attorney. The actress has a fully felt presence, but the romance that develops feels too conventionally movie-ish. And though the case clearly echoes the 1994 incident of the young American arrested and caned in Singapore, the reference raises a question: Why, in Return to Paradise, does the State Department seem barely involved? That said, you’re carried past the rough spots by Vince Vaughn’s brooding, ultimately moving performance. Return to Paradise is Midnight Express remade from the outside, as existential quandary. It has the moody, disquieting undertow of a true moral thriller. B+