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Shanghai Surprise

***
1986

‘…a silly screwball farce, short on stunts or visceral action and clearly missing some scenes, but as a retro star vehicle, it’s out-of-stepness with the 80’s provides added value today…’

‘Now I know why cannibals used to barbecue missionaries!” quips Sean Penn in Jim Goddard’s notorious 1986 flop, a retro action-adventure that teamed the star with his then-current wife Madonna. Both stars were already household names when the film finally made it to theatres, but a muted release indicated that the plug had already been pulled; this movie rarely turns up anywhere, disk, tv or streaming. This adaptation of Tony Kendrick’s novel Faraday’s Flowers also become a byword for a flop, much like Battlefield Earth, but seen some four decades after the hype, it’s not as awful as might be anticipated.

Shanghai Surprise taps into two big waves of 80’s cinema; the retro-action film a la Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone, but also the interest in the East that led to Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Mishima. Penn plays Glendon Wasey, a shiftless, shifty man-about-Shanghai who gets roped into a scheme organised by missionary Gloria Tatlock (Madonna). She’s been asked to locate some weapons-grade opium, disguised as crates of flowers and believed lost; she holding out for a hero to locate the prize, and the boozy, wisecracking Wasey is the best she can find.

For an adventure movie, Shanghai Surprise is remarkably static, rarely setting foot outside the city of the title, and largely confined to intrigue in nightclubs and a few explosions; a Shanghai Surprise is literally an explosive charge that the film takes a title from. It’s a strange world were fatalities are rare, but violence is everywhere; there’s some gruesome torture sequences but few deaths to push the narrative along. Both remarkably fresh-faced, Madonna and Penn actually work quite well together; he leans into being a punkish no-hoper with a penchant for wearing and selling fluorescent ties, and while many complained about Madonna’s stiffness, that’s what a 1930’s missionary should be like, right?

A slip-up from Handmade Films, producer George Harrison at least got hands-on by adding a few songs of his own composition to the soundtrack, giving the whole enterprise a unique flavour. It’s not got much drive, but as a rubber-necking exercise, this really doesn’t quite deserve the intense backlash it got. It’s a silly screwball farce, short on stunts or visceral action and clearly missing some scenes, but as a retro star vehicle, it’s out-of-stepness with the 80’s provides added value today. And if that’s not enough, the great Paul Freeman from Raiders of the Lost Ark has a juicy dual role here that’s well worth the effort to catch, and Richard Griffith does his thing enjoyably too. The surprise in the 80’s was that this was a flop, but what’s surprising in 2022 is that Shanghai Surprise isn’t bad at all.

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  1. I actually saw this in the theatre when it first came out. I have not seen it since, but I do recall it was not as bad as its box office. That didn’t make think it was any good, but it wasn’t as bad as its turnout.

    • That’s about where I’ve got to. Not the next big thing that was anticipated, but there are some good bits, and it’s not quite the misfire everyone seems to think. Never met anyone else who has seen it, so chapeau to you!

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