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FW Weekly Vaughn & Phoenix: The Next Great Duo?

By Joe Leydon

AUGUST 17, 1998:  Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. James Cagney and Pat O'Brien. And now - Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix? OK, maybe it's too early to the think of the latter pair as a classic co-starring team. But it's worth noting that, in the tradition of Old Hollywood contract players, the actors are appearing together in projects released within weeks of each other. In October, the robustly virile Vaughn and the soulfully intense Phoenix can be seen in Clay Pigeons, a darkly humorous drama about serial killings, crimes of passion and inconvenient corpses in a small town where folks are unaccustomed to such peculiarities. This week, the actors appear in a rather more prestigious project, Return to Paradise, a movie that should do for Malaysia what Midnight Express did for Turkey - that is, greatly decrease the American tourist trade.

Loosely based on a 1989 French drama titled Force Majeure, Paradise begins as three American strangers become close friends during an extended Asian vacation. At the end of their holiday, Sheriff (Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad) bid farewell to their new buddy, Lewis (Phoenix), and leave behind a hefty stash of hashish in their rented bungalow. Unfortunately, Lewis has to pay dearly for the carelessness of his friends.

Flash forward two years, and we find Sheriff, a hearty under-achiever, working as a limousine driver in New York. One night, he picks up a passenger, Beth Eastern (Anne Heche), who identifies herself as Lewis' attorney. The bad news is, Lewis was arrested by cops who found the hashish, and remains in a Malaysian prison. The worse news is, if Sheriff and Tony don't return to Malaysia and accept partial responsibility, Lewis will hanged as a drug trafficker. Tony readily agrees to do the right thing, even if that means serving a three-year prison sentence. But Sheriff, who readily admits his own selfishness, is reluctant to follow Tony's lead.

Working from a screenplay by Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson, director Joseph Ruben balances predictable contrivance (Sheriff and Beth fall in love) with genuinely upsetting surprises. Phoenix and Vaughn don't really get a lot of on-screen time together - throughout most of the film, Phoenix is stuck in a hellish cell - but they establish a believable bond during an early scene, and that's enough to make Sheriff's moral dilemma sufficiently compelling. - Joe Leydon

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