The Chinese beat us to the punch by five years on this one, but that’s not necessarily a victory for them.
“Shanghai” is one of those movies with a history.
It was originally scheduled to film in Shanghai in 2008, but just one week before shooting was to commence, the Chinese government revoked the permits due to the nature of the story, which is set in late 1941, just as the Japanese were invading Shanghai and were planning to bomb Pearl Harbor.
Eventually the filming of “Shanghai” was relocated to Bangkok, where elaborate sets were built and an international cast including John Cusack, Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li, Franka Potente and Hugh Bonneville assembled to film a noir war thriller— think “Casablanca” in the Far East.
“Shanghai” was released in China in 2010, but it sat on the shelves of the Weinstein Co.’s library for a half-decade and is only now making its U.S. debut.
Here’s the thing about movies that languish for so long the actors sometimes look much different (a.k.a. younger) than they do in the present day: They’re almost never Oscar contenders or gigantic hits.
Not that “Shanghai” is awful. It’s just … off. Some of the performances are quite good and the production values are impressive. But the voiceover narration from Cusack’s character sounds like a parody of an old Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart movie, the dialogue occasionally delves into borderline camp territory, and there’s a lurid veneer to the proceedings that gives “Shanghai” a decidedly B-movie identity.
Cusack of course is a versatile actor capable of making the screen pop, but he’s miscast here and he gives a Bad Nicolas Cage-type performance as Paul Soames, an American spy masquerading as a journalist in Shanghai. Most of Soames’ best work seems to come about because he just happens to spot some cloak-and-dagger stuff happening at parties and in crowded casinos. We’re supposed to admire his investigative skills and his fighting prowess and his way with the ladies, but I wasn’t buying it.
Soames arrives in tumultuous Shanghai in October of 1941. It’s the last great Chinese city yet to be taken by the Japanese, but that seems to be a matter of when, not if. In the meantime, Shanghai is an exotic and bustling and dangerous mix, with the Chinese resistance taking the fight to Japanese forces, and the Americans, Brits and Germans tending to their own interests while keeping a wary eye on their established and potential enemies.
Soames is consumed with solving the murder of his best friend and fellow spy Connor (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, seen mostly in flashbacks), who had become involved with an opium addict (Rinko Kikuchi), who may or may not have been a spy for the Japanese, or maybe she was a double agent, or even a double-crossing double agent!
The beautiful Gong Li has the Ingrid Bergman role as Anna, who is married to the most powerful crime boss in Shanghai (Chow Yun-Fat) but is far more passionate about playing a key role in the resistance against the Japanese. From the moment Paul sees her across the poker table at a casino, he’s a goner.
We get scene after scene of Paul and Anna verbally sparring as they try to figure out each other’s true intentions. Usually they’re within inches of each other, the sexual tension rising as blood spills in the streets.
Anna’s gangster boss likes Paul, but he grows increasingly suspicious of Paul and Anna. But war is breaking out all over the world, and it doesn’t take much to see that problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Ahem.
Ken Watanabe does excellent work as Captain Tanaka, the Japanese security chief in Shanghai, who has a few (admittedly odd) moments of bonding with Paul, as they share war stories of the romantic variety. They’ve both been deeply wounded by women who have left them. Hugh Bonneville plays a comically inept newspaper editor, who is livid at Soames for writing a front-page story sympathetic to the Nazi cause — as if an editor wouldn’t see the story before it went to press. David Morse plays Paul’s boss, who’s utterly incompetent and ignores Paul’s warning the Japanese fleet is planning something BIG.
If you clicked across “Shanghai” late one night, you’d probably stop for a while, what with the familiar cast and the action sequences featuring seemingly hundreds of extras and decent special effects. But the mystery is muddled, the romance is tepid and scenes that should be electric with tension are almost dull.