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A luxury of fine acting

The premise of Brokedown Palace seems like a tired idea, but an engrossing script and convincing stars let it triumph where it could have failed.

At first glance, Brokedown Palace appears to be primed for ridicule. We've seen enough movies about Americans trapped in the legal conundrums of foreign countries. Placing two attractive youth-market favorites behind bars for a trumped-up drug charge begs for the movie to be subtitled Midnight Express 90210.

Yet, Jonathan Kaplan's film turns out to be one of the best surprises of the summer movie season, a gripping tale that doesn't plead for sympathy or cop out with an incredible resolution. The central issue _ women behind bars _ is never exploited for easy shocks, and each frame of Brokedown Palace shines with authenticity. This is the kind of movie that more of Hollywood's future superstars should be doing, rather than pandering to their built-in audience.

Claire Danes asserts herself as a major league actor as Alice, a recent high school graduate who talks her best friend, Darlene (Kate Beckinsale), into a cheap vacation in Thailand. In the beginning, the trip is the lark they expected, with humorous culture clashes and a nightlife that doesn't check IDs. They meet Nick, a handsome Australian tourist (Daniel Lapaine), and Darlene wins the muted rivalry for his affections by spending the night with him.

Nick offers to take the young women to Hong Kong for a weekend fling, an idea that Alice doesn't like. She bows to Darlene's wishes, however, and they go to the airport for the flight Nick arranged. Before they can board the plane, Thai officials arrest them and find 2 kilos of heroin stashed in Alice's backpack. Soon, they're locked in a dank prison without any hope of setting the story straight. U.S. civil rights don't apply here, so their initial whining turns into frightened acceptance.

Enter an American expatriate lawyer named Yankee Hank Greene (Bill Pullman), who makes a nice living defending drug offenders who don't understand the Thai system. Brokedown Palace becomes a maze of legal protocol and international red tape that proves Hank doesn't know as much as he believed, either.

It's obvious that Nick was responsible for planting the heroin among their possessions, but this isn't a simple conspiracy. In the tradition of Bogart and Gable, Hank follows the case as long as the women's parents' money holds out, then loses interest, only to have his compassionate side awakened when evidence supporting their claims trickles in. David Arata's script doesn't take any grand leaps of logic or thrust artificial emotion at the audience; it's tidy, knowledgeable and always engrossing.

Brokedown Palace could still have been a mistake, if Kaplan hadn't secured the talents of Danes, Beckinsale and Pullman to make this international melodrama seem real.

Danes is establishing herself as a fearless selector of roles, not content with merely trading on her popularity with the My So-Called Life set. She makes some canny choices in line delivery and expressions to avoid forcing Alice's various pains too much. Older, more experienced actors could take a lesson from her method of taking one step back from the obvious responses to what happens around her. Less is more, as she proves in every scene in which she appears.

Beckinsale has the showier role, since Darlene has the weaker personality of the two women. She's the one who'll break under pressure and, in one sequence, falls victim to the unsanitary conditions of the prison. Beckinsale leaves behind the glamor of her eye-catching turns in Cold Comfort Farm and The Last Days of Disco, leaving her spiritually hollowed by the prison experience but never too weak to survive.

And it's good to see Pullman finally get another chance to wrap his laconic acting style around a flesh-and-blood role, after his flights of fantasy in Casper, Independence Day and Lake Placid, not to mention whatever he was doing in David Lynch's Lost Highway. Pullman isn't a crusading actor, and Hank isn't a saintly character. This combination of part and player is a smart move by Kaplan that holds Brokedown Palace together.

The movie does sacrifice some degree of realism to keep its PG-13 rating; a caning and cockroaches are the worst problems Alice and Darlene confront behind bars, and the sexual subtexts that are possible in these conditions are ignored. The ending feels too pat after Kaplan sets up such an inescapable problem for his heroines. Key characters are pulled out for convenience like so many file folders. These quibbles aren't bothersome until the movie is replayed later in the mind's eye, thanks to the convincing lead performances.

Toss in a musical score that sounds MTV-friendly, yet perfectly suited to the film's somber-youth crisis, and Brokedown Palace has everything needed to attract young moviegoers, who currently drive box office success. Whether they'll line up to see a story featuring cinematic peers in which nobody is betting on losing their virginity, or threatening a teacher or classmate, remains to be seen. For the sake of the cinema, let's hope so.

MOVIE REVIEW

Brokedown Palace

Grade: A-

Director: Jonathan Kaplan

Cast: Claire Danes, Kate Beckinsale, Bill Pullman, Lou Diamond Phillips, Daniel Lapaine, Jacqueline Kim

Screenplay: David Arata

Rating: PG-13; drug themes, profanity, nudity, violence

Running time: 105 min.

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