The Prison of Cliché

Brokedown Palace

If two young women characters in a movie decide to take a vacation to an exotic locale before going to their respective colleges, the viewer can be certain one of two things will happen: They’ll have passionate sexual awakenings at the hands of a handsome stranger, or they’ll be unjustly imprisoned in a fucked-up judicial system with seemingly no hope of ever getting out.

In the case of Brokedown Palace, we get both. Best friends Alice (Claire Danes) and Darlene (Kate Beckinsale) go to Thailand for a post-graduation adventure. There they meet the hunky Australian Nick, who rescues them from one inadvisable scam and lights their hearts afire. Not surprisingly, Nick’s a drug smuggler who plants two kilos of heroin on Alice after buying them plane tickets to Hong Kong. One anonymous tip later, they’re stuck in Thai prison, being asked to sign statements they cannot read and being subjected to horrors of Third World justice such as roaches (they don’t have those in America) and marginally bad haircuts. This situation is very ironic, because, as Alice tells us, the name “Thailand” means “freedom.” Then again, Alice also tells us that freedom is only in our heads. Deep.

Anyway, into this hopeless scenario enters Hank Greene (Bill Pullman), a Han Solo-like lawyer who does it for the money but stays with it because he’s really a good guy. He doggedly pursues justice, trying to free these sweet, innocent teens.

Or are they? Screenwriter David Arata never establishes the characters or friendship of Alice and Darlene enough for the audience to know, and the underlying conspiracy — involving, of course, customs officials and bribe-taking higher-ups in the justice system — is never explained or proved convincingly. The way the movie shows what leads up to the drug bust, it actually seems more likely that either Alice or Darlene is guilty.

As usual, character development suffers from excessive plotting, and bad plotting it is. Three friends make the trip to Thailand, apparently with the sole purpose of giving the two prisoners $100 to be used for an escape attempt that must fail if the movie is to have its proper dramatic ending.

Said escape plot does fail, and lands the heroines in the hole, where all jailed protagonists in prison movies must spend some time thanks to a federal law signed by FDR. The same law also requires jailhouse films to feature the characters of the Sadistic Prison Guard, the Sympathetic Prison Guard, and the Wizened Lifer.

Not to give too much away, but Brokedown Palace also has one of the most hilariously ludicrous happy endings in recent memory, with a smile and a voice-over from Alice that I really hope were tacked on because of poor test screenings.

All my griping is really beside the point, though. This isn’t so much a movie as a travel advisory. If Alice and Darlene had gone to Hawaii as they’d originally planned, these awful things would never have come to pass, because we all know that nothing in Brokedown Palace — wrongful imprisonment, fabricated evidence, drug smuggling, etc. — could ever happen in our humane and just republic.

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