There is nothing wrong with Brokedown Palace that a tighter screenplay couldn’t have fixed. The photography is first-rate, Claire Danes (Little Women, My So-Called Life) is excellent and the rest of the actors are more than adequate. The story concept is solid: two innocent midwestern girls become victims of an evil drug smuggler in exotic and far-away Thailand. If this film had been done without stars and far away from Hollywood it might have taken us someplace worth traveling to see. But the lamentable and oh-so-predictable ending to Brokedown Palace removes all doubts about Danes’s character Alice, and in so doing we are left with little more than a pretty movie that feels like it was made for network television.
Mainstream movies are hell-bent to make you empathize. So the first half hour of this film finds blonde Alice and brunette Darlene (Kate Beckinsale – Cold Comfort Farm, The Last Days of Disco) cutting up like normal spoiled, disrespectful, teen aged Ugly Americans. The screenwriter (David Arata) must believe that when Darlene and Alice guffaw while pretending to pray to the Golden Buddha, we will find their snotty naivete appealing.
Time for conflict: enter the drug dealer Nick Parks (Daniel Lapaine) and cut to the girls being tossed into a Thai prison. They have clearly been set up by baddies, represented by the entire Thai penal system with the complicity of a smarmy American embassy official (Lou Diamond Phillips). Now make way for a possible savior: Yankee Hank (Bill Pullman), the American lawyer married to the Thai lawyer…oops! This is a gal picture, so first make Yankee Hank rather unprincipled himself, interested only in his retainer. Now…pump up his wife (Jacqueline Kim) and give her enough integrity for everyone! She’ll save the day or her name isn’t Mrs. Yankee Hank.
Danes has a very appealing ambivalence about her, unlike co-star Beckinsale, whose hair is never mussed after months in a Thai hell-hole. It is Danes’s conflicted personality and past that keep us wondering where the plot might turn. We needn’t have worried. At the end Danes and the writers play it like a Middle School morality play. Cliches are knocked back like punch and cookies and the curtain comes down.
To the film’s credit, there is one major cliche they avoided. How the producers must have fought for frontal nudity during the mandatory prison shower scene! But no dice. Danes and Beckinsale keep their clothes on all the way through. There goes the American Pie audience.
For all of Fox’s money, they must have run out of duct tape before they could fix all the gaping holes in the script. For one, what is the point of the evil Thai fellow-prisoner who flits in and out of scenes like a partially malfunctioning light bulb? What ever happened to Nick Parks at the end? And will somebody please explain the American college friend coming all the way to Thailand to bring the girls a padded bra? A padded bra?
A special mention must be given to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. As in the visually excellent The Usual Suspects (1995), Sigel’s use of partially out-of-focus frames helps build tension, particularly within the prison itself. There are lots of interesting shots, such as when Yankee Hank’s airplane lands in Hong Kong, in slow motion; when it passes the stationary camera we see a huge ship in the background. It all suggests, without saying a word, the enormity of the city and the task ahead. If only the screenplay could have matched the photography in subtlety and texture.