(PG-13, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/HandMade Films, 97 mins., theatrical release date: August 29, 1986)
I say this after NetFlix has decided that the best way for me to view this was via Artisan Entertainment's pathetically outdated 2003 release. In case you weren't an avid video collector back then, Artisan were to digital video what SLP mavens Avid Video [ahem] were to the VHS contingent. They were catalog title distributors who offered up low-grade transfers basically selling unsuspecting consumers VHS dupes transferred to disc, freed from the tyranny of original aspect ratios and special features. The standard retail prices for their titles were hardly worth the effort, and unless you really needed to revisit Watchers or Shadows Run Black out of your own masochism, well...just watch Dirty Dancing again. That was all they were good for.
Lionsgate rectified this by issuing an actual "special edition" several years later, complete with all manner of tacky talking heads showcases and a "Fans Unite!" audio commentary from a quintet of male Madonna scholars. NetFlix didn't get that memo, and thus I am in the temporary possession of a stagnated piece of plastic which may as well represent Madonna's own presence in the film.
What a hell of a way to see China.
Howard the Duck, at least, had actual contemporary interviews with accessories to the crime, chiefly creators Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz as well as stars Lea Thompson and Jeffrey Jones. Nobody wanted to reflect upon the making of Shanghai Surprise, meanwhile, Howard's immediate contender as the biggest flop of 1986 and cutthroat multiple Razzie nominee, which may as well be a given since, as it is now as it was then, its real legacy rests squarely on its long-estranged leading actors, Sean Penn and Madonna.
Oh, the 1980s, you worked in mysterious ways. How did two of the most disparate egos in show biz manage to tie the knot for a bated-breath audience of tabloid junkies and industry insiders? What circumstances led the Me Decade's premier Method actor to declare his vows to the Queen of Pop? What was going through George Harrison's mind when he pursued this project despite the baggage associated with this diabolical duo?
Yes, Shanghai Surprise was produced by the Quiet Beatle himself, the same man who got into film simply because he felt Monty Python's Life of Brian was too precious not to be shared with the wide world. Harrison's HandMade Films also helped produce a slew of British cult classics such as The Long Good Friday, Time Bandits and Withnail and I. And if Harrison had not taken out that mortgage on his own humble abode, the UK would never know the discreet charms of The Burning, which HandMade distributed theatrically alongside Venom, the movie which pitted Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed and a Black Mamba against each other in a grudge match for the ages.
The prospect of a George Harrison/Madonna duet would go unfulfilled, sadly, as evident in the opening credits of Shanghai Surprise, which were animated by none other than Maurice Binder. If Madonna's British affectations had kicked in before her dalliance with Guy Ritchie, then by rights she'd be the one taunting George with the line "You must be crazy/You got no money/And you're a liar."
And George...oh, dear: "My straits are dire from the wok into the fire/I'd like to trust you but I've broken my rickshaw." I didn't think he could make Paul "Spies Like Us" McCartney sound hip, but it happened. I can't find my brave face, and I haven't even made it to the man's musical credit.
Enough time lapses for me to think about the bizarre choice about having Sean Penn inherit Sir Roger Moore's mantle before the movie takes us to 1937, the year when the Japanese occupied China. There we meet Walter Faraday (Paul "Belloq" Freeman) enjoying a hearty, crunchy dinner with what looks like steel chopsticks. Because heaven knows, you never smuggle 1000 pounds of opium on an empty stomach. Ironically, the morbidly obese man sitting across from him demands he get a move on, as there are Jap soldiers outside their door. "Their beef's with the Chinese," Faraday counters, savoring the taste of his own plate of delicious Alpo. The Chinese's beef is with him!
As the rickshaws pull Faraday and his loot towards international waters, the self-described "Opium King" (have it your way, Faraday) decides to pay a visit to a certain China Doll. We never see his supposed maiden, instead being treated to the first of many double-crosses as Wu absconds with the bounty and both Faraday and his fat companion, a journalist named Willie Tuttle (Richard Griffiths), are cornered by the foot soldiers of Chinese official Mei Gan (Kay Tong Lim), who wants returned to him what he feels is rightfully owned. In lieu of that, Mei Gan confiscates Faraday's utility belt and starts emptying out its contents, only to trigger the explosive within its final compartment and have his hands blown clean off. Faraday and Tuttle make a run for the nearest harbor and dive right in, but the secret police open fire and apparently murder Faraday. I say "apparently," because...well, you'll see.
One year later, the whereabouts of the opium treasure, or "Faraday's Flowers," continue to remain unknown. A pair of missionaries tending to wounded Chinese troops have a rendezvous with destiny when they seek a bilingual stooge to bankroll for investigative purposes. Their salvation comes in the form of an unkempt drunkard, Glendon Wasey (Sean Penn), booted off his boat to Los Angeles for insufficient funds. The elderly Mr. Burns assigns his associate Gloria Tatlock (Madonna) to watch over Wasey, who will receive a ticket back home provided he locates the father of a mortally wounded rickshaw carrier, one Wu Ch‘En She.
You can tell that what Miss Tatlock is really interested in are Faraday's Flowers, as the opium within them could be used as morphine to administer to her patients. Wasey catches wise to the deception, but stays on the search though coercion and thus leads us into a veritable slew of shady ancillary characters and dead ends. Wasey encounters Faraday's beloved China Doll (Sonserai Lee), a concubine with delusions of empress-style grandeur, and thus piques the curiosity of Mei Gan and porcelain replacement hands. He is also shadowed by the lanky Justin Kronk (Philip Sayer), who is in cahoots with Mr. Tuttle, and there is also a baseball-obsessed entrepreneur named Joe Go (Clyde Kusatsu) and his Oddjob-esque muscle (Professor Toru Tanaka). All of these characters also have their fingers in the pie, and it's up to Wasey and Tatlock to navigate these interlopers if they hope to uncover Faraday's Flowers.
Shanghai Surprise was a fiasco from the word go, as George Harrison (who worked with Michael Kamen on the film score and manages a couple of decent original tunes such as "Breath Away from Heaven" and the especially salvageable "Someplace Else") himself admitted in interviews where he grieved over the poor choice of script, director and leads. Infamous stories abound over Sean Penn's ill temper and the constant friction on set. If only these anecdotes amounted to a camp classic, as this is more a confusing and slapdash assemblage of worn-out adventure movie clichés reliant entirely on the superficial novelty value afforded by putting Penn and Madonna into a period play date.
Penn tries to make the best of the situation, but the nature of his particular acting style contradicts the film's supposed fluffiness. Even as early as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Penn's Methodical meticulousness put him squarely in the lineage of Robert De Niro rather than Clark Gable. The role demands a playful, roguish charisma which he instead plays way too sour-faced and stoic. Given his beginnings as Jeff Spicoli, the precursor to the likes of Bill & Ted & Wayne & Garth, you'd think Sean could make lemonade out of the material, but he seems to be out of his element and doesn't commit with the same compelling brio he reserves for his dramatic roles. That being said, Penn does endeavor, particularly when he consoles a regretful, drunken Miss Tatlock after she places him under "obligation."
If it's not love that you need, then he'll try his best to make everything succeed, I suppose.
The real weak link throughout is, no surprise and all shanghai, Madonna. In only her second major film role following Desperately Seeking Susan, she is making a dreadful reach in the kind of role you expect from one of the Old Hollywood fixtures she rapped about in "Vogue." Alas, she proves no exception to the rule that being an established pop icon doesn't automatically make you a star actress. Madonna is perpetually frigid and awkward as Miss Tatlock, her appalling inability to mine humor or honesty in any situation marking her as fatally unfit for a farce, let alone any movie trying to sell her as a 1930s missionary. To be fair, it's not as if the screenplay gives her an arc, making half-hearted references to a phony identity and a loose morality which are not followed up on. This disingenuousness is emblematic of both the character and the performance.
Put these miscast lovebirds together and you got a movie that doesn't so much sing as yowl like a cat with a stiletto through its tail. The romantic heat between them is vaporous, a form of anti-chemistry which invites more speculation on their notoriously erratic private lives than any investment in their celluloid personalities. I mean, compare this to Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing, released a year before Shanghai Surprise, which deliberately modernized Frank Capra's It Happened One Night with two then-unknown actors who weren't real life items. That John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga clicked charmingly whilst Penn and Madonna flounder from one crummy confrontation to the next shows up the utter famine of faith on behalf of all involved.
Shanghai Surprise disgraces all of its varied lineages, not just the Casablancas and The African Queens of rosy vintage, but even the more contemporary James Bond and Indiana Jones sagas. The supporting players don't even compel on the most rudimentary level of exposition, and their motivations are contrived to the point of abject confusion. The plot, adapted from a novel published in 1978, has all the meticulous structure of a fifth-rate Choose Your Own Adventure book, with threads involving bogus diamonds and the sanctioned intimidations of Mei Gan going absolutely, implausibly nowhere. The recreated Chinese backdrop, which should be distinctly colorful, is staged with dispiriting drabness by director Jim Goddard, who makes even mid-eighties John Glen (Octopussy, A View to a Kill) look like classic Terence Young (From Russia with Love, Thunderball).
Going back to Howard the Duck for a second, and the mention of Lea Thompson and Jeffrey Jones. That movie is terrible, yes, but at least one could feel duly ashamed that actual talent went to waste, as Thompson was so beguiling in Back to the Future and Jones was in peak form in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Shanghai Surprise offers no such luxury, with the slight exception of Sean Penn, and even then his off-screen cockiness put merciful paid to any notions that he and Madonna's presence alone was publicity enough. They weren't working actors who managed to find themselves in a flop, these two willed it upon themselves and have done little to lighten up in the meantime. Shanghai Surprise stinks of a massive ego trip to this day even if its principals continue to ignore it, and so should you.
Still my guitar gently weeps.