The first 20 minutes of "Brokedown Palace" promises an exciting and suspenseful adventure. Two lifelong friends, Alice (Claire Danes) and Darlene (Kate Beckinsale), in a small Midwestern town, are graduating from high school and will be headed in separate directions. Why not, then, have a last fling--let's say, a two-week Hawaii vacation? But Alice, the more venturesome and resilient of the two, has noticed the label on a bottle of imported beer at a graduation eve blast and persuades Darlene that they should go to the more exotic Thailand--but in the event of parental disapproval, they'll let everyone believe that Honolulu rather than Bangkok is their destination.
Bangkok lives up to their expectations, and in their state of elation they decide to take drinks by the side of a pool at a posh hotel. In her larky mood, Alice charges their tab to a room number she picks at random. Just as a meticulous waiter is catching her in the act of deception, a personable, good-looking young Australian businessman, Nick (Daniel Lapaine), comes to her rescue, pretending to know her and saying that she must have forgotten their room number.
When Nick continues on his way out of the hotel, Alice insists he let her and Darlene treat him to drinks to repay him for his face-saving gesture. Nick swiftly sweeps Darlene off her feet and proposes the girls join him on a quick trip to Hong Kong. Feeling left out in the face of her friend's unexpected budding romance but finally wanting to be a good sport, Alice reluctantly agrees. No sooner do the girls arrive at the airport than they are surrounded by Thai police and DEA officers, who discover substantial amounts of heroin packed in their luggage.
Facing 33-year sentences, they wind up in a vast, primitive prison, referred to as the Brokedown Palace by its inmates. At this point, it's the movie that breaks down, spiraling from bad to worse. As written by David Arata from a story he wrote with the film's producer, Adam Fields, this Fox 2000 presentation is just another lurid, contrived, xenophobic tale about Americans trapped in hideous foreign prisons. Very soon you wish you were watching one of those deliberately delirious vintage made-in-the-Philippines Roger Corman women's prison pictures that were so much less pretentious and so much more fun than this nonsense. (Not helping matters is that this picture was, in fact, filmed largely in the Philippines, too, which is pretty clear in the prison sequences.)
All but one of the Thai people depicted are either corrupt or venal, or at the very least, harshly unjust. Darlene's father (Tom Amandes) proves to be a jerk, an Ugly American of the first magnitude, whereas Alice's widowed father (John Doe) is hopelessly ineffectual; in short, the dice are loaded at every turn. The girls' only hope is a local expatriate attorney, married to a native lawyer, and Bill Pullman and Jacqueline Kim try to bring wry humor and compassion to their roles.
Danes and Beckinsale are exceptionally talented young actresses, and you can see how they would have been tempted by the opportunity to play big, dramatic roles; unfortunately, the script's seriously underdeveloped context defeats their considerable efforts at every turn, culminating in a climactic sequence that can only be described as ludicrous.
Jonathan Kaplan is a fine action-suspense director, and he did excellent work with Jodie Foster in "The Accused," Michelle Pfeiffer in "Love Field" and Bonnie Bedelia in "Heart Like a Wheel." But there's not much he can do when weighed down under an avalanche of contrivances. Like Danes and Beckinsale, he is worth far better than "Brokedown Palace."
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief strong language, and for violence and drug-related material. Times guidelines: The violence is considerable, and the film has an overall aura of brutality.
Claire Danes: Alice Marano
Kate Beckinsale: Darlene Davis
Bill Pullman: Hank Greene
Jacqueline Kim: Yon Greene
A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 presentation. Director Jonathan Kaplan. Producer Adam Fields. Executive producer A. Kitman Ho. Screenplay Darid Arata; from a story by Fields & Arata. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Editor Curtiss Clayton. Music David Newman. Costumes April Ferry. Production designer James Newport. Supervising art director Neil Lamont. Set decorator Peter Walpole. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
In general release.