Brokedown Palace belongs to a subgenre I'm not particularly fond of, where an American visits an exotic foreign land, only to end up shackled into a coldhearted, barbaric justice system. Basic Storytelling 101 requires the author to develop some form of conflict, and movies like the Oliver Stone-written/Alan Parker-directed Midnight Express and last year's Return to Paradise throw the easiest of xenophobic sucker punches. Plop an American into a culture fundamentally different from his own and watch him be swallowed whole. Rather than spending energy trying to shed light on an ideology that finds drug smuggling a far more serious offense than first-degree murder, movies like these let the foreignness alone do the talking. They prey on the audience's inherent fear and distrust of the dastardly other.
While Midnight Express at least held a certain lurid if empty fascination within the prison walls and Return to Paradise wrestled effectively with a personal no-win crisis of conscience before it lapsed into absurdity, Brokedown Palace hits the ground running, and goes well beyond the dramatically shoddy lengths of its predecessors. To start, it gives us rebellious Alice (Claire Danes) and the more compliant Darlene (Kate Beckinsale), two teenage best friends between high school and college looking for one last memorable good time together before separating into the land of maturity. These two giddy, dopey teens decide to forgo Hawaii in favor of a vacation in Thailand, where they spend their nights in a six-dollar-per-night roach motel and their days giggling at the silly customs of the natives. Needless to say, it doesn't take too long for them to find trouble, as they pose as guests at the type of posh resort hotel they could have found in spades in Hawaii. But why they're in Thailand is neither here nor there-what's important is that they end up in prison. That occurs after a seductive young stud (Daniel Lapaine) arranges for them to fly to Hong Kong with a tin can full of heroin in their backpack.
And so begins an act of exploitative deck-stacking that puts the earlier prison films to shame. This Asian society not only punishes criminals to excessive lengths by American standards, it also punishes the innocent. Not only do Alice and Darlene find themselves within a system of justice that serves them a 40-year prison sentence for a crime that would cost them a fraction of that time here in the States, the film refuses to make them actually guilty of anything other than their own immature naivete. (Other than milking out a lackluster whodunit element, the film is pointlessly ambiguous about who if either of the two girls was aware of the drugs in their possession.) And to add insult to injury, not only is this system of government harsh by our standards, it's corrupt, too. Sarah and Alice are the victims of an opportunistic investigator who is just a single representative of the film's not-so-vaguely racist outlook, where the only Asian character who isn't a cold, manipulative bastard is the thoroughly Americanized wife (Jacqueline Kim) of Yankee Hank (Bill Pullman), the American expatriate lawyer who defends the girls.
Journeyman director Jonathan Kaplan (Bad Girls, Unlawful Entry) takes this cheaply melodramatic script from novice writer David Arata and then neuters it beyond reason. As if afraid to stand up to the cheaply sought convictions of the storyline, Kaplan gives the harsh prison life of his two main characters a look and feel more appropriate to summer camp. The actors are understandably lost in the confusion: Danes and Beckinsale make solid efforts to work with their murkily conceived bad girl/good girl roles, Pullman sleepwalks as the clichd isolationist who learns to care, and Lou Diamond Phillips, as an ethically challenged diplomat, goes the hambone route with sneering, cigar-chewing work that belongs in a different movie. It's all aimed at a story of the power of friendship over adversity, but the end result is a film far messier and more corrupt than the society it attempts to portray.