- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2001

Call it the "West Side Story" strategy. Take Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and remove all that useless poetry. Then update the story of forbidden love by changing the Montagues and the Capulets into something else.

In the case of the new NBC movie "The Princess & the Marine," the disapproving families are turned into an Arab royal dynasty and the Marine Corps. The underlying "Romeo and Juliet" tale is a great one, and this real-life version holds up well, too.

"The Princess & the Marine" tells of Marine Lance Cpl. Jason Johnson, who fell in love with Meriam Al-Khalifa, a Bahraini princess, while he was stationed on that small Persian Gulf island. Her family disapproved of her marrying an outsider (national and religious), and he smuggled her out of Bahrain. An international incident ensued.

(According to news accounts, the couple were married in November 1999 in Las Vegas. He was court-martialed for forging military papers to get her out of Bahrain, and his rank was reduced. Later, he received an honorable discharge.)

I already knew the broad outline of what has happened between Cpl. Johnson and Miss Al-Khalifa, but the details and some sharp scenes and performances make for an enjoyable two hours.

What struck me at first as flaws eventually are explained or aren't really flaws when you think about them. For example, our first view of the princess has her watching "Mad About You" on television. She and her girlfriends traipse to the mall while Spice Girls music plays on the sound track. Meriam wears makeup, an open hairdo, flared trousers and tight Western-style tops with an occasional midriff.

I was skeptical. But there's a very good scene in which Meriam's mother tells her that she gave her extraordinary freedom because she didn't like how her own brothers looked after her. But now Meriam has risked shaming the royal family and must wear more traditional dress and may not go out unaccompanied.

The two leads obviously dominate the picture. Mark-Paul Gosselaar (remembered best as Zack in "Saved by the Bell") plays Johnson. In portraying a Mormon Marine in a Muslim country, he takes a low-key, quiet approach.

Marisol Nichols is a bit too broad in her mannerisms early on as the princess, but she's good in the later scenes of anguish and passion when she's cloistered and scarfed over.

Officialdom comes across less bad than one would expect. The Bahraini government has a secret police whose members seem to have gotten their sinister Arab look from a hundred Hollywood terrorism movies. But the broader society is done better, particularly during scenes in which outsiders are shocked at the princess with an American in public. They register it carefully and subtly, however.

As for the Marine Corps, the movie could have done better. "The Princess & the Marine" pretty much takes for granted that romance is more important than duty. It also glances over the implications of discipline for a single soldier whose affair of the heart creates an international incident.

But, particularly in the early part of the film, Jason's Marine buddies step into the role of the call of duty. They try to steer him away from involvement with Meriam once they find out — although it's not made clear how — that she's a princess.

"The Princess & the Marine" once again illustrates the truism that good love stories require repression. The couple can't meet, and she can only go out under her mother's watchful eye. The stolen glances, the notes passed through conduits and the way he proposes to her are sweet and romantic and also quite suspenseful.

The final payoff shot, involving a couple of bags, should bring a lump to the throat of even the most Cupid-hardened during Valentine's week. The only real flaw in the film is its narrative arc, but even that has mitigating circumstances.

The closing scene is good. But after the film is over, a few title cards reveal that the story is far from over and that Meriam formally filed for political asylum only in October. The film left me with the impression that she already had done that in an earlier scene.{*}{*}{*}WHAT: "The Princess & the Marine"WHERE: WRC (Channel 4) and WBAL (Channel 11)WHEN: 9 p.m. Feb. 18

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