Shanghai Surprise (96 minutes) 1986/Rated PG-13 – starring Sean Penn, Madonna, Paul Freeman, Richard Griffiths, Philip Sayer, Clyde Kusatsu, Kay Tong Lim, and Sarah Lam. Directed by Jim Goddard. Released through Handmade Films and originally available on Vestron Video.
The title of the film refers to a type of explosive, packed away inconspicuously in a money belt. When the wired compartment is snapped open, both times by the movie’s main villain, a controlled bomb is triggered causing bloody mayhem. In the case of the entire film “Shanghai Surprise,” it refers to a type of dud, the kind that fizzles upon the first few expository scenes, never to ignite interest for the remaining running time.
While golden era movie couples, those that were linked both on and off the screen, made for classic pairings (Gable & Lombard, Bogart & Bacall, Tracy & Hepburn), modern day sweetheart films seem to fall resoundingly flat. Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg in “Made In America,” anyone? Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin in “The Getaway,” if you please? Madonna and Sean Penn had been married just a few months when they decided to make a film in the Far East, a part of the globe filled with mystical enchantment and exotic locales. Ships are also referred to as junks there and this endeavor began to resemble a sinking garbage barge.
With paparazzi woes, less-than-celebrity accommodations, and an inexperienced director (Goddard had only helmed TV fare up to this point), the Material Girl and her Pit Bull Mate dissed the production and disowned the film upon its release. Some of these logistics are hard to predict and plan for until a crew actually arrives on location. What is controllable is casting and storyline. The lack of an entertaining plot and the complete misfire in casting the two leads should have alerted executive producer Beatle George Harrison that he shouldn’t have signed the first check on this project.
Penn plays a weasel tie salesman literally thrown from a boat at the feet of a Massachusetts missionary played by Madonna. The year is 1938 and Shanghai, China has become occupied by the Japanese (the film was primarily lensed in Hong Kong). Madonna recruits her newfound, Mandarin-speaking, hustling friend to help her find a cache of opium plants mysteriously stolen from an ex-drug kingpin who has met his demise in a double-cross. By retrieving the opium, the drug can be used to help the pain suffered by GI’s everywhere, Madonna claims. A varying assortment of nefarious characters shadow the pair as they wander from one tip-off to the next. Jewels figure into the narrative somewhere midway and more double-crosses lurch across the screen. It’s the tedious kind of adventure film where it’s all talk, all bickering, with many pointless supporting characters, and with nary an adventure. The height of action occurs in a lamely-directed rickshaw chase that lasts about two minutes.
Penn and Madonna may have been honeymooning lovebirds at this time, but that chemistry seems to have been left back at the Hong Kong Hilton on a daily basis. Penn appears detached, looking offscreen half the time, as if he’s trying to spot the whereabouts of his on-set trailer. Madonna’s monotone delivery and feeble attempts at stirring emotion show an absolute lack of commitment to her characterization. Watching the couple together onscreen gives one the distinct impression that the flight over from the States left the duo with a debilitating case of jet lag. An undercurrent of smugness can be detected in the way both actors treat their supporting players in every scene (all very capable and headed by the sophisticated Paul Freeman). Their final obligatory ‘kiss-and-make-up’ scene highlights their indifference to others, as Penn and Madonna violently shove their way through Asian citizens on a dock, Madonna barking, “Move, move!,” and one can only assume that director Goddard just captured an unscripted moment in the star couple’s daily life on location.
Cinematographer Ernie Vincze’s photography is the only element that keeps this whole mess from sinking to the bottom of the celluloid harbor. With a limited budget, he has managed to capture an atmosphere of time and place that, in better hands, would’ve served the production immeasurably. George Harrison wrote and performed five songs for the soundtrack, and while they are unmistakably “George,” they’re not unmistakably “good.” For a project that ostensibly must have been pieced together to showcase the “Couple Of The Moment,” it fails miserably in convincing us their personalities were the least bit noteworthy. When Madonna’s character succumbs to Penn in bed, in one of the cinema’s most unconvincing build-ups to a sex scene, she gets herself drunk the next morning to mask the shame she feels. You too might rummage for a bottle in despair after you waste an hour and a half of your life subjecting yourself to “Shanghai Surprise.”
© 2000 Ned Truslow
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