Shanghai Surprise – Special Edition – DVD Review

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Directed by
Jim Goddard

Sean Penn … Glendon Wasey
Madonna … Gloria Tatlock
Paul Freeman … Walter Faraday
Richard Griffiths … Willie Tuttle
Philip Sayer … Justin Kronk
Clyde Kusatsu … Joe Go
Kay Tong Lim … Mei Gan
Sonserai Lee … China Doll
Victor Wong … Ho Chong
Professor Toru Tanaka … Yamagani San
Michael Aldridge … Mr. Burns

The Movie:

I wonder what the ratio is between good and bad films made by pop stars throughout the years. One could say that Elvis set the model for singers, having one or two honorable performances, but mostly starring in rather disappointing pictures. Ricky Nelson probably could have turned the trend around if his life hadn’t been cut short, starring in the classic Rio Bravo, but mostly doing TV work outside of his music. Unfortunately for every Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Sting has a Dune or The Bride on his resume. The closest legitimate crossover seems to be David Bowie, who has poor entries such as The Gunslingers’ Revenge, but also has wondrous works of entertainment in his filmography , such as The Prestige, Labyrinth, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

Then there’s Madonna. While there’s no question that Madonna is a pop culture icon, she’s often been considered box office poison when showing off her talents on screen. While she’s been able to do well in such pieces as A League of Their Own, Evita, and maybe even Dick Tracy, there’s just no accounting for the atrocious movies of her career, such as Swept Away, Body of Evidence, Who’s That Girl?, and The Next Best Thing. Also up for the latter category is her onscreen adventure with her then-husband, Sean Penn, in a film the Oscar winner will probably not look upon as his best work – Shanghai Surprise.

Set in 1937, the film revolves around a huge shipment of Chinese opium which every lowlife in Shanghai is trying to get their hands on. While most want the opium for nefarious reasons, only a missionary, Miss Tatlock (Madonna), and her companion Glendon Wasey (Sean Penn), want to secure the drugs in order to ease the suffering of soldiers fighting in the front lines of early World War II. Regrettably for us, what could have been a rousing adventure and a clever Caper film through war torn Shanghai, ends up a muddled and confusing mess. The film has some very nice production values and costumes, but nothing can really make up for the movie’s sloppy plotting and paper-thin characters.

Only a few make it out of this picture unscathed, with Raiders of the Lost Ark veteran Paul Freeman coming out on top as Walter Faraday, a man who declares himself Opium King at the beginning of the film, but is shortly brought back down with the masses when he is betrayed by a disloyal servant.

Also quite entertaining is Clyde Kusatsu as Joe Go, a Chinese gangster with a penchant for baseball, also looking for the opium using any means necessary. These two both have really entertaining moments in the film and are allowed to shine in a way that the rest of the cast never gets to because of the film’s inadequate script.

Shanghai Surprise seems to jump from one set piece to another without really explaining where it’s going. Screenwriter John Kohn seems so content with throwing in as many twists as possible, that he doesn’t give the audience a chance to catch up, twisting again before we realize what has happened at the previous turn. Also, plot points are disregarded with such fervor; the characters don’t seem to care what is going on, which makes you wonder why we were supposed to be bothered with them in the first place.

In the middle of this storm are Madonna and Sean Penn, with Penn adrift somewhere in between his Fast Times at Ridgemont High performance and his current brooding screen persona and Madonna simply adrift. As alluring as she may be at times in this film, she’s simply miscast as a missionary who apparently uses her body when necessary to get whatever she wants. It’s hard to buy her innocent approach when the performance is so simply veiled and false. At least some of her other roles made use of the her sexuality, whereas here we get only a morsel of the one element of her personality that actually allows her to have screen charisma.

Shanghai Surprise looks like a film that would rather be forgotten by all involved, and for the most part it has. Mildly entertaining at best, and simply atrocious at worst, the movie is only for die hard Madonna fans that look fondly at the period when the Material Girl was on top of the world. This may not be the worst film of her career, but that’s not really saying that much either.

The DVD:

The Video
There seems to have actually been a lot of care put into this transfer, as the movie looks particularly great on this DVD, with very little grain or any signs of wear and tear whatsoever. The colors are very bright and the picture pristine all the way through. The film is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.77:1.

The Audio
The Audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 is just as good, with George Harrison’s soundtrack getting a very nice presentation. There’s a good balance between music and dialogue here with no distortion to be heard.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary, Featurettes, and Trailers.

Fans Unite! Commentary – This track feature 5-6 Madonna fans looking back on this film and their experiences with it over the years. Some are actually pretty hard on this movie, saying that it basically sunk Madonna’s movie career, and others are more supportive. There’s not much insight here, but fans will probably have fun listening to this track.

Lights, Camera, Shanghai! – This Featurette goes about 11 minutes and mostly features Clyde Kusatsu discussing his experiences on the movie. He isn’t very positive about the film, but has some interesting insights into the production, as well as his time in Hong Kong filming the picture as well.

Madonna: 1986 – Nina Blackwood, Ted Casablanca, and a scary-looking Melissa Rivers look at Madonna’s career at the time as well as impressions on the movie itself. This goes for about 8 minutes and is mildly interesting.

I Love Shanghai Surprise! – The weirdest extra on this disc is this one, which goes about 15 minutes and basically has some B-List celebrities and comedians riffing on the movie in a similar fashion to VHI-1’s I Love the 80’s show. This is mildly amusing for a while, but overall, it’s kind of mean and may only end up making fans of the movie really angry.

The DVD Lounge’s Ratings for Shanghai Surprise
(OUT OF 10)






The Inside Pulse
While the movie is just as bad as I remember, I’m perplexed why Lionsgate would put certain features on this disc that talk about just how bad this movie is. This is an odd mix of a DVD that includes scathing insight, as well as hero worship for the film’s star. Just an odd experience overall.