Our review of Shanghai Surprise: Special Edition, published April 10th, 2007, is also available.
A romantic adventure for the dangerous at heart.
Romantic: only in the sense that Shanghai Surprise is a celluloid monument to two gargantuan egos abjectly in love with themselves, and who share all the onscreen chemistry of Sly Stallone's pet turtles in the original Rocky.
Adventure: to the same degree that the U.S. Navy is not just a job, but an adventure. In other words, this film is as exciting as K.P. on a submarine.
Dangerous: should bear a warning from the Surgeon General—"Shanghai Surprise may cause permanent brain damage, terminal boredom, and complete and utter loss of faith in humanity."
Heart: not one iota of this in evidence. Anywhere.
Facts of the Case
Gloria Tatlock (Madonna, who would later get to play "My husband made me make this movie!" again with new spouse Guy Ritchie in the equally abysmal Swept Away) is a medical missionary seeking a legendary stash of high-grade opium (strictly for medicinal purposes, of course)—a thousand pounds' worth, the hidden legacy of a murdered drug smuggler. Glendon Wasey (Sean Penn, who would later get to play "My wife made me make this movie!" again with new spouse Robin Wright in the only slightly less abysmal She's So Lovely…don't these people ever learn?) is a ne'er-do-well itinerant salesman with perfect command of the local Chinese dialect and a steamer trunk full of cheap glow-in-the-dark neckties with buxom babes painted on them—sort of the sartorial equivalent of those chrome-plated silhouettes popular with long-haul truckers.
No, they don't fight crime. But you'll wish they did. Instead, the holier-than-thou Gloria and her roustabout companion prowl the streets of 1938 Shanghai in search of "Faraday's Flowers," the local code phrase for the missing opium. Or at least, they think it's opium. But it might be the crown jewels of a long-ago dynasty. Or maybe it's just a MacGuffin. But not a McMuffin. At least you could swallow that.
If only Gloria and Glendon had spent as much time searching for a script. Or a director. Or, in the case of the one-time Material Girl, an acting coach.
Movies get produced for many reasons. Some arise from an interesting screenplay, either original or adapted. Other are conceived as star vehicles, to promote a top-rated or rising actor. Still others originate from a familiar franchise property. Then there are those movies that are made for no better reason than celebrity spouses/significant others seek to spin their matrimony/shack-up-imony into cinematic gold, and they bully a film studio into letting them try. As a textbook example of the latter, I give you Shanghai Surprise. (But I'm warning you…no returns will be accepted.)
It would take more patience than the Judge possesses to enumerate all of the reasons why this movie was a rotten idea, but let's start with the leads, shall we? In her only second real starring role—she actually managed to have (and be) fun in Desperately Seeking Susan the previous year—Madonna displays none of the firepower (she's never displayed much acting ability) that made her, at the time, the world's highest-grossing recording artist and most popular music video starlet. In Shanghai Surprise, Ms. Ciccone reads her lines as though every suggestion of genuine emotion would cost her a hundred thousand in CD sales. For his part, Sean Penn speaks all of his dialogue through a mouth barely open enough to slide in a saltine, as if he knows how ridiculous the words are and is afraid to permit them easy escape. Both Mr. and the then-Mrs. Penn exude all the rambunctious enthusiasm of first-time visitors to the proctology clinic.
Then there's the script, adapted by TV veteran John Kohn (whose most recent feature credit was the unwatchable Goldengirl, starring flash-in-the-pan bombshell Susan Anton) and his sidekick Robert Bentley, from an obscure novel only they ever read. To say this screenplay is dreary and lifeless would be to insult the truly dreary and lifeless, and to say it makes logical sense would be to insult the reader's intelligence. Director Jim Goddard, whose résumé largely consists of British television efforts, gooses the lumbering story along with such yawn-provoking ennui that one can almost envision him sitting behind the camera in his canvas chair with a crossword puzzle and an hourglass.
Incongruities abound. Madonna's character is supposed to be a sincerely religious church worker (like a missionary? like, I'm sure) in the 1930s, but she packs on enough makeup to embarrass a Times Square streetwalker, wears skirts so snug you can read the gold embossing on the Bible in her hip pocket, and surrenders her virtue to the sleazebucket Wasey at the drop of a petticoat. (Apparently, someone forgot to inform the Material Girl that she was only supposed to play a missionary, not…oh, never mind.) And the lockstep, paint-by-numbers cinematography and production design manage to make the real-life China (locations were shot in Hong Kong) look like a cheap ripoff of Disney's Jungle Cruise.
Several familiar actors of Asian descent—including Clyde Kusatsu, professional 'rassler Professor Toru Tanaka, and the omnipresent Victor Wong—are subjected to the customary Hollywood indignities of embarrassing cultural stereotypes. The Caucasian supporting cast members, led by Paul Freeman (showing no ill effects from that nasty accident with a religious artifact in Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Richard Griffiths (Harry's grumpy Muggle uncle in the Harry Potter films), don't fare any better. George Harrison, whose Handmade Films produced this monstrosity, attempts to offset his losses by tossing several wearisome songs up against Michael Kamen's score (speaking of Michael Kamen, how does this hack keep getting work on so many high-profile films?), so he can recoup a few simoleons on the soundtrack CD.
As might be expected, Artisan Entertainment wasn't any more thrilled about landing the DVD rights to this grotesquerie than the principals were about making it, so they've spared all conceivable effort and expense on this release of Shanghai Surprise. The pan-and-scan transfer is dirty, dingy, fuzzily focused, and faded. (When all else fails, alliterate.) The soundtrack, allegedly offered in Dolby Surround (not that I could identify any actual surround separation, mind you), comes across as harsh and monotonous, almost as though it were recorded over a telephone connection. (Of course, the movie itself was phoned in, so why should the disc audio be any different?)
No one bothered to check the Artisan vault for potential extras, which is just as well. Although adding Madonna's videos for Papa Don't Preach and Like a Prayer to a movie in which she portrays (and I use that term in the accommodative sense) a missionary would have been a wickedly appropriate in-joke. But then, no one asked me.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A friend and I were discussing this the other day: Why is it that real-life couples—as Madonna and Sean Penn were at the time of Shanghai Surprise—rarely set off any palpable sparks on camera? Witness, for example, the now-famously abominable chemistry between off-screen roommates Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in the recent Gigli.
My theory is twofold. First, the dynamics of real-life relationships are a raw nerve few actors want to expose in public. It's one thing to pretend to be hot and bothered about someone you barely know, or with whom you have only a professional relationship—that's just acting. It's entirely another thing to let the whole universe see what goes on behind the closed doors of your inner sanctum. When one considers how jealously many celebrities try to guard that secret closet in their very public lives, it's no surprise that some of them find it difficult to "let it all hang out" when the director says "Action!" I mean, if you're Ben Affleck, do you really want everybody and his grandma (or maybe just Matt Damon) seeing the straight-up 411 on how you and J-Lo get your freak on? I doubt it.
Second, relationships (as most of us more than a decade past puberty can attest) plateau fairly quickly. True love soon deepens into something more fulfilling, but decidedly less electric, than that overwhelming, hyperbolic adrenaline rush that accompanies the first blush of infatuation. The problem for filmmakers is that deeper, mellower thing isn't much to look at…and it doesn't translate well to celluloid.
Then again, in Madonna's case, maybe the girl just can't act worth a doggone.
The dictionary defines "shanghai" as a verb meaning, "to put by trickery into an undesirable position." Sounds like a movie I just watched.
Artisan is found guilty of resurrecting a past indiscretion that was better off forgotten, then compounding the crime with shoddy workmanship. For foisting this lukewarm, uninvolving tedium on an unsuspecting filmgoing world, the Judge sentences Madonna and Sean Penn to a long cruise together on a slow boat to China. And oh yes…the shipboard entertainment is an endless loop of Shanghai Surprise.
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