Sean Penn is Glendon Wasey, a quick-witted fortune hunter looking for a fast track out of China. Madonna is Gloria Tatlock, a determined missionary nurse seeking the healing powers of opium for her patients. She wants to help the suffering…he wants boat fare back to the States. So fate sets them on a hectic, exotic, chaotic and quite often romantic quest for stolen drugs. The trouble is, the opium they’re after is also the target of every thug and smuggler in Shanghai. It’s a wild rickshaw-race adventure with every concubine, kung-fu killer and crime boss in town in hot pursuit!
You’re in for a Shanghai Surprise as Sean Penn and Madonna star in this high-flying, grand adventure set in 1937 China, with music by former Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison.
eyelights: the beautiful locales. the sumptuous production.
eyesores: Madonna. Sean Penn. George Harrison’s songs. its weak attempts at humour.
“Drugs cause pain. Opium eases pain.”
‘Shanghai Surprise’ is a 1986 motion picture starring Sean Penn and Madonna. Produced by none other than George Harrison (who also contributed music), directed by Jim Goddard and based on the novel ‘Faraday’s Flowers’ by Tony Kenrick, it is mostly remembered as an embarrassment, bombing at the box office and collecting no small amount of critical drubbing (including six Razzie nominations!).
The picture takes place in Shanghai in 1937 and it follows the attempts of a young missionary (Madonna) (seriously!) as she tries to track down a stash of opium that could be of benefit to her patients. To help her in her quest, she enlists the help of a shady character (Penn) who is familiar with the area and can speak the locals’ native tongue. Together they weave their way through the underworld.
Honestly, the less said about ‘Shanghai Surprise’ the better. But one thing has to be said in its defense: there are far worse motion pictures out there. It benefits from a rather good-looking production, taking full advantage of the locales to add a welcome touch of exoticism and realism that pictures of this ilk frequently don’t have – especially back in the ’80s, when cheap sets were the norm.
Had the script been stronger, and the leads less repulsive, then perhaps it would have been a decent rainy day time-waster. But, alas, there are hackneyed attempts at humour that misfires on all counts: the one-liners are terrible, the physical comedy is ill-placed and the delivery is even worse. It’s as though the filmmakers were trying to blend in classic farce elements without grasping the genre.
Of course, good comedians could have made gold out of coal, but the film was saddled with Madonna and Sean Penn – whom are neither good and/or comedians. The pair, who had gotten married in 1985, showed absolutely none of the magnetism that had drawn them together – not only was the characters’ relationship utterly unconvincing, but they had no on-screen magic whatsoever.
Madonna is particular horrible to watch here, whining her way through all too many lines to the point of being insufferable, and delivering each one in the same way you’d lob a flat boulder in a pond. There is no sign of talent to be seen here. Not a glimpse. Not a hope. Meanwhile, Sean Penn, who has become a well-chiselled actor over time, reeks just about as much as his greasy character does.
‘Shanghai Surprise’ is horrible, horrible stuff. The thing to torture critics by.
To make matters worse, the movie is marred by what is probably the most discrepant soundtrack in memory, courtesy of producer George Harrison. Although the score he co-wrote with Michael Kamen is decent enough, his songs are brutally limp and ill-suited for a thirties setting – especially in a wannabe adventure picture. On their own, they already suck hard. In this picture, they totally blow.
A perfect example of the flaccidity of his numbers comes right in the picture’s first few moments, during the ‘You Only Live Twice‘-inspired opening credits by none other than the legendary Maurice Bender. Given that he was so closely associated with James Bond, one would be hard-pressed not to expect something epic. Alas, Harrison penned such a limp number that it netted him a Razzie nomination.
How he could spoil such an opportunity for greatness is beyond me.
With two different leads, and more contextually appropriate songs, ‘Shanghai Surprise’ might actually have come off as a relatively entertaining adventure, somewhere along the lines of a modern but terminally limp version of ‘The Maltese Falcon’. It certainly wouldn’t have been great, but one can’t possibly understate just how fetid Madonna, Sean Penn and George Harrison’s involvement is.
To paraphrase Madonna’s Gloria Tatlock: ‘Shanghai Surprise’ causes pain. The mute button eases pain.
Date of viewing: June 13, 2015