IN "BROKEDOWN Palace," high school friends Alice (Claire Danes) and Darlene (Kate Beckinsale) fly to Thailand for a last hurrah before they go to college. But their quickie vacation becomes a long-term nightmare when local authorities arrest them for drug smuggling.

In a tragedy of small errors, their youthful, American invincibility is dismantled. They become involved with a handsome, too-good-to-be-true Australian (Daniel Lapaine), who persuades them to accompany him on a jaunt to Hong Kong.

Then, as they board the plane, a cache of heroin is found in their luggage. Suddenly, they're branded as drug smugglers, and they're facing life. The tougher Alice refuses to talk to the police until she gets a lawyer. But a detective tricks the more gullible Darlene into signing a confession worded in Thai.

The U.S. embassy seems unable to help them. (And you know the girls probably aren't getting top priority with third-tier star Lou Diamond Phillips in charge of their case.) Back home, Alice's father (John Doe) isn't too flush for legal assistance. And Darlene's affluent father (Tom Amandes), who considers Alice a bad influence on his daughter, only wants to free his baby girl.

Eventually, everyone throws their collective faith into a lawyer known as Hank "Yankee Hank" Greene (Bill Pullman), who works with his Thai partner and wife (Jacqueline Kim) to save the souls of the young and innocent from Thailand's kangaroo courts.

This is not a fantastic movie. But there's more to it than just an MTV-slickified "Midnight Express" starring two young, photogenic stars. Director Jonathan Kaplan infuses the movie with atmospheric doom and gloom. And it's clear that screenwriter David Arata (who wrote the original screen story with producer Adam Fields) did his homework on Thailand's bizarre penal system. He also spoke with many American women who have suffered similar fates.

"Brokedown Palace," which refers to the jail where the women find themselves, never lets up on its victim-heroines, as Alice and Darlene experience their incarcerated eternity. Jailers yell, guards watch menacingly from turrets and hope dwindles to nothing. You just don't see this kind of inner suffering and sacrifice in "The Real World."

But the thing that interested me most was the Bill Pullman-Jacqueline Kim element. An expatriate American and his Asian wife who save trust fund brats from life imprisonment in Bangkok? A sort of American-Asian Nick and Nora team? Now that's a story. But wait a minute. What was I thinking? It's not the story, it's the stars that matter -- the young stars. Excuse me while I exhale like Chris Farley and repeatedly smack my forehead. It was just a stupid thought.

BROKEDOWN PALACE (R, 101 minutes) -- Contains some nudity, rough treatment of prisoners and profanity. Area theaters.