There are lots of times when coming in second isn't so bad, but in the movie business it's death. If it hadn't been for Alan Parker's brilliant 1978 film "Midnight Express," about a young American who's jailed in Turkey for smuggling drugs, and which even won a well-deserved Oscar for Oliver Stone's script, we -- critics, audiences, maybe the world -- would be much more enthusiastic about "Brokedown Palace," which is about, um, two young American girls jailed in Thailand for, uh, smuggling drugs.
Alice (Claire Danes) and Darlene (Kate Beckinsale), two Ohio girls celebrating their high school graduation, are set to go to Hawaii, but under pressure from the bratty Alice, change their tickets and go to Bangkok instead -- without telling their families.
And what do they find there but a charming young Australian who comes on to them both, offers to buy their tickets to Hong Kong for a weekend, and then -- ahh, don't get ahead of me. Yes, they are stopped at the airport as they leave Bangkok, where heroin is found in their backpack, and they are jailed. The film is similar in some ways to "Midnight Express," but in the Bangkok prison they are not brutalized, and the culture and customs of Thailand are not necessarily oppressive nor unfair in their own terms.
The old reliable actor Bill Pullman is called in -- he's a kind of local American pseudo-practicing attorney married to a Thai native who is an attorney -- and the story now becomes a growing-up tale of the two young women. I must say that I was quite caught up in the changing dynamic between the two, and the ways in which they come to deal with their fate. Not quite "Life," not quite "Midnight Express," "Brokedown Palace" (Alice's name for the prison) has a strength and power of its own that moves and touches us even though we think we've seen it all before.
Danes and Beckinsale give true and unmannered performances, staying well within their characters. Director Kaplan, who comes to this film from television (many episodes of "ER"), has an eye for lighting and composition, and isn't afraid to use shadows and drab sets when he shoots, yet also captures the texture of this overwhelming Asian capital as well. And the film's script, which might have descended into jingoism and bigotry, holds fast to an honorable respect for another culture's own traditions. If there's a villain in the film (other than the Australian) it's the local American DEA officer, played with smarmy snickers by Lou Diamond Phillips.