Based on the 1989 Euro-arthouser, Force Majeure, Return To Paradise is a character-driven slow-burner much like last year's Red Corner, highlighting the fact that crimes considered petty in the West often encourage a bit of neck-stretching in the Far East. And, like Red Corner (`good' Richard Gere versus `bad' Chinese law), Joseph Ruben's emotional pot-boiler deals with the human consequences of a legal culture clash, with an American abroad facing the wrath of a draconian justice system.
The film stakes its life on a pivotal moral dilemma: would you spend three years in a lice-infested lock-up to save a friend from the gallows? For the majority of its running time, it asks this question repeatedly, testing the strengths of friendship and the weaknesses of conscience.
But Return To Paradise is not merely two hours of Heche whining: "Oh, pleeease..." Halfway through, the focus shifts from the imprisonment of Lewis and the ugly depiction of his Penang cage to the emerging love story between Heche and Vaughn. Social commentary is slowly eroded by romantic slush, with a neat sideswipe at the media (represented here by Pinkett-Smith's blundering reporter) relegated to an aside.
Heche is good, Conrad acquits himself admirably, and Phoenix gives the affair an emotionally powerful thump as the condemned Lewis.
As for Vaughn (who starred alongside Heche in the Psycho rehash), he succeeds in enlivening his character with a freewheeling, don't-give-a-shit attitude. But his world-view is so polarised it makes his eventual emotional transformation that much more difficult to swallow; come the home stretch, you can't shake the feeling that hard-hitting drama has been sacrificed for an audience-friendly finale.
A ploddingly slow, character-driven tale built on a compelling premise. Return To Paradise features excellent performances and a twisting-turning plot, but predictable romance diverts attention from thought-provoking culture-clash.