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BROKEDOWN PALACE

by: James Berardinelli

Brokedown Palace is essentially an exploitation film without the exploitation. It is not dramatically sound and lacks the high level of sleaze and gratuitous nudity expected from a "women in prison" motion picture. In short, aside from a couple of interesting ideas and competent performances by lead actresses Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale, this motion picture has little to recommend it. The filmmakers couldn't even decide whether they wanted a happy or downbeat ending, so they compromised, and the result is unlikely to satisfy even the most undiscriminating viewer.

Brokedown Palace can be seen as a cautionary tale about what can happen when would-be vacationers choose Thailand over Hawaii. For one last fling before college separates them, longtime friends Alice (Danes) and Darlene (Beckinsale) lie to their families about heading to the 50th state, then hop a plane to Bangkok. While there, they meet a handsome, charming Australian named Nick Parks (Daniel Lapaine) who flirts with both of them, then offers them a free trip to Hong Kong. They accept, but, while at the airport waiting to board the plane, they are arrested by the police, who discover drugs in their luggage. Soon, after being rushed through a rigged trial, they find themselves in "Brokedown Palace," a third world women's prison where they are doomed to spend the next 33 years of their lives. Desperate to find a way out, the two girls pursue different avenues. Darlene looks to her father, who speaks to an official at the American Embassy (Lou Diamond Phillips). Meanwhile, Alice contacts lawyer "Yankee" Hank Green (Bill Pullman) and his wife, Yon (Jacqui Kim), who have a reputation for helping jailed Americans - for a price, of course.

Anyone experiencing a sense of déjà vu while watching Brokedown Palace can be forgiven. We have seen this basic story twice in the past few years. Like Richard Gere's melodramatic clunker Red Corner and the more intelligent Return to Paradise, this film deals with the unjust application of law in a southeastern Asian country. And, while the approach here is more palatable than that of Red Corner, it lags behind Return to Paradise considerably both in the way it presents the situation and in the manner by which it resolves things. Brokedown Palace features a painfully contrived and hard-to-swallow outcome that few viewers will accept.

Claire Danes (making her second bad movie in a row, following The Mod Squad) and Kate Beckinsale (The Last Days of Disco) do the best they can with feeble material. Character development is especially weak. It starts out okay when the girls are introduced, but falls apart after they end up in jail. Once behind bars, Alice and Darlene turn into generic, faceless prisoners with little to distinguish one from the other (except that a cockroach crawls into Darlene's ear and makes her ill). One might argue that such an approach - showing how an experience of this nature wipes away individuality - is intentional, but that's giving more credit to director Jonathan Kaplan and writer David Arata than they probably deserve. Brokedown Palace suffers from lazy screenwriting. The filmmakers are more interested in focusing on plot machinations than on the individuals trapped by them. The same thing is true regarding Yankee Hank's motivations. Initially, he's in it for the money, but, once his fee has been paid, he suddenly and inexplicably grows a conscience. Why? Because "no one deserves what [the] girls are going through." Yet the scene or scenes allowing us to believe this transformation from hard-hearted mercenary to self-sacrificing do-gooder were either left on the cutting room floor or were never committed to celluloid.

Brokedown Palace left me shrugging my shoulders and shaking my head. I never cared about Alice or Darlene. They don't respond to circumstances in a real manner

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