The real surprise for Judge Brett Cullum was that Madonna got any acting work after this flick.
Our review of Shanghai Surprise, published August 18th, 2003, is also available.
A romantic adventure for the dangerous at heart.
Since Shanghai Surprisewas the winner of a 1987 Razzie for Madonna's performance, it's surprising anyone would even think to release a collector's edition on DVD. The film was also dishonored by Razzie with nominations for Worst Actor (Sean Penn), Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, and the penultimate prize of Worst Picture. Fortunately for Shanghai Surprise, both George Lucas (helming Howard the Duck) and Prince (Under the Cherry Moon) trumped the picture, tying for the final prize of the evening. 1986 was a bad year for movies featuring pop stars, as Madonna and Prince stunk up the screen like nobody's business. The pair seemed untouchable earlier in the decade, ruling the charts with albums and appearing in solid movie roles. Prince had Purple Rain and Madonna turned heads in Desperately Seeking Susan, but in both projects the stars were relying on their natural charisma as rock stars more than any acting chops. Shanghai Surprise was the proof that Madonna had a long way to go to be an actress, and it almost killed her husband's credibility as well. Sean Penn and Madonna wouldn't last, and Shanghai Surprise probably set them on their way to a divorce by 1989. She wanted to make this movie and he didn't. Take a lesson, Guy Ritchie, because Swept Away may have done the same thing to you, buddy. So let's take a nostalgic look at the first time we all sat in the dark and gagged over the Material Girl as she mangled the screen, and ponder why anyone wants a fully loaded edition of this train wreck.
Facts of the Case
Madonna plays a determined medical missionary seeking opium to relieve the pain of her patients. Sean Penn is a down-on-his-luck fortune hunter who reluctantly teams up with her to go after a large stash of stolen drugs. Unfortunately, every smuggler and gangster in Shanghai is also after it. Before it's over we get an illogical rickshaw chase, a crime boss outfitted with plaster hands (shaped perfectly for smoking), a skilled concubine capable of performing exotically named specials, two wicker baskets with Madonna and Sean Penn's voices, and a bunch of baseball-loving characters chewing through miserable dialogue in a second rate Romancing the Stone rip-off.
The movie itself is a mess, and time hasn't made it any more endearing. The 1937 Shanghai designs look strangely too much like 1986, the plot is full of holes, the acting is uniformly bad, and there's not enough action to make it at least a fast-paced folly. Madonna and Sean Penn lack any heat or chemistry on screen, which is strange given their state of wedded bliss at the time. They do look incredible, and maybe that's the main attraction for fans. Sean Penn and Madonna are young and pretty, and the goofy-ass movie at least provides a rewind for both of them (though I seriously doubt Madonna or Penn wants anyone to remember them like this). The only thing minorly tolerable is the George Harrison soundtrack which sounds fine, and can actually be found on his Cloud Nine CD release. Harrison was the producer, and his own Handmade Films is responsible for this monstrosity.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Shanghai Surprise has been released previously by Artisan, who gave it a bare-bones, poorly transferred treatment. Lionsgate loads up a ton of extras to support a pristine transfer with great sound. Colors are vibrant and the anamorphic print is a vast improvement over the fullscreen Artisan release. Sean Penn's plaid suit shimmers a bit, but on the whole it looks as good as it did on release. If you're a fan of the film this DVD is worth it, and if you're a fan of Madonna it's a sure bet. Five male Madonna fans assemble to provide commentary; they know nothing about the movie, yet everything about the star. There's a look back at the making of the movie from supporting actor Clyde Kusatsu, and he delivers some real dish on the leads. There are two B-level celebrity-filled featurettes (Melissa Rivers, Ted Casablanca, and Nina Blackwod are featured with others) about Madonna circa 1986 and what they find funny about the movie. It reminds me of a VH-1 episode of I Love the '80s all on one subject. The extras make the movie seem more enjoyable than it really is, and the disc is worth a rental or purchase for these elements alone.
The movie deserves Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, which it basically gets on the Shanghai Surprise: Special Edition thanks to the bitchy commentary track from Madonna's colorful fans. You'll want to provide your own heckling if you choose the option to actually watch the movie. Shanghai Surprise is as bad as you've heard and then some. It hoped to mine the magic of Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone, or even more classic sources such as Warner Brothers romantic adventures from the '40s. It's no surprise; this one sucks! But at least the makers of the DVD know this, and give it appropriately sneer-filled extras which have fun poking fun. Penn looks bored, Madonna can't act, and the film is mishandled from the get go. But this new Special Edition DVD gives you a whole lot more.
Guilty of not surprising anyone. The movie still sucks, and now we get in-depth extras that affirm this fact.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Fans Unite! Commentary
Review content copyright © 2007 Brett Cullum; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.