‘Paradise’ Lost

The movie will be regarded by mainlanders strictly as either a Trivial Pursuit entry (“Which two films co-star John Travolta and Bruce Willis?”) or a quickly disregarded footnote...

Maui-set Bruce Willis/John Travolta film is so bad it’s…well, it’s bad 

Chuck Russell’s “Paradise City” is among the rare mainstream movies to not only be filmed on Maui but also take place here. Combine that with reports of a first-time reunion between “Pulp Fiction” stars Bruce Willis and John Travolta, as well as Hollywood and local talent synergizing for a crime movie set on the Valley Isle, the expectations were high. 

The image one conjures of a Maui-set Willis/ Travolta action movie, with many scenes filmed in Kihei, are much better than the bottom-of-the-five-dollar-DVD-bin-at-Walmart result. On the other hand, here is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen all year, with big, generous laughs that come often. Unfortunately, it’s not a comedy. At least, not intentionally. 

Courtesy 308 Entertainment

Bruce Willis stars as Ian Swan, a bounty hunter who crosses paths with a dangerous, well-connected Maui drug kingpin named Buckley and played by Travolta. We also meet Swan’s son and a cop investigating the case, played by Blake Jenner and Praya Lundberg, both pleasant but not ready to carry a film. There’s also Stephen Dorff as a bounty hunter and former protégée of Swan. Despite characters who have strong introductions, there’s no real lead to this thing.

“Paradise City” begins with an opening title identifying and misspelling a historic Maui town. Later, Travolta drops a bad guy out of a helicopter into an erupting volcano, which narration informs us is supposed to be Mt. Haleakala. Suffice it to say, the screenwriter has either never been to Maui or fell asleep during his guided tour. 

Our introduction to Willis’ character gives us a car crash we hear but don’t see, with the camera shaking to indicate something just hit a tree. This is a cartoon. 

I have friends who worked on this film which, by their accounts, was apparently a fun experience. Proof of this can be found in the end credits, which has, of all things to conclude an action/thriller on, a blooper reel. Despite longer-than-usual end credits and the “wacky” outtakes, the movie is barely 90 minutes long. 

Willis’ aphasia diagnosis was unknown while the film was being made. The actor is barely in the movie and is giving one of those half-there performances that, we now realize, can be blamed on his declining health. I love Willis, and the failure of this movie isn’t on him, but rather the three credited screenwriters (one of whom is the director). 

On the other hand—and this isn’t meant as a back-handed compliment—Travolta is really good in this. The iconic star of “Grease” sometimes leans too heavily into whimsy if a role isn’t working for him, but here, Travolta plays everything completely straight, which is exactly the right choice. 

It was an inspired idea to cast the prolific, always entertaining Branscombe Richmond as Senator Kane, until you see how tiny the role is. If the screenplay had been great, let alone coherent, it could have utilized a solid ensemble.

Courtesy 308 Entertainment

The screenplay informs us that “Maui is the international drug port.” I thought the biggest problems Maui had were unemployment, housing, and the displacement of indigenous Hawaiians. Turns out, it’s really all the shootings taking place in “Hanna.” 

The screenplay is a mess, though a bigger hindrance than an unfocused story with no center is that Russell’s movie is part of the problem with most Hawaii-set movies: by lacking authenticity and logic, the film’s depiction of Native Hawaiians and contemporary Hawaii isn’t just offensive but condescending, too. 

Although Willis and Travolta have a scene where they converse in a bar, nothing here reignites a “Pulp Fiction” feel. In fact, the dialog is full of howlers like, “My name is Swan…like the bird.” Or the moment where Dorff studies a photo of a corpse and declares “…looks dead.” 

Russell has made some enjoyable films (the 1988 remake of “The Blob,” the third “A Nightmare on Elm St.,” “The Mask,” “Eraser”) but his direction here is impersonal. Considering that Russell’s last film was the better-than-remembered “The Scorpion King,” this “comeback” effort feels wasted on his indifferent direction. 

The movie will be regarded by mainlanders strictly as either a Trivial Pursuit entry (“Which two films co-star John Travolta and Bruce Willis?”) or a quickly disregarded footnote. For Maui residents, it lands somewhere between an ignorant insult or a laugh riot. Note how everyone here refers to cops as “Maui PD,” not MPD. According to this movie, there’s a “gentleman’s club” right next to Fleetwood’s on Front Street (does Mick know?!). 

The only real authenticity here: the license plates all have rainbows on them. Considering how a portion of this was shot in Savannah, Georgia, let’s at least give the filmmakers credit for not botching the license plates. 

If you watch it, make sure you follow it up immediately with “Hard Ticket to Hawaii”… and prepare to laugh yourself silly. 

Barry Wurst

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