Despite an impressive cast including Chow Yun-Fat, John Cusack, Gong Li and Ken Watanabe, "Shanghai" is a huge disappointment. Set in 1941 Shanghai, beginning two months prior to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, this tale of espionage is woefully uninteresting.
Paul Soames (Cusack) has just arrived in war-torn Shanghai, where, until recently, the French, Germans and Americans still enjoyed all of the pleasures of the Orient. He's a U.S. Navy operative looking forward to reuniting with his fellow spy/best friend, Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). But Conner has just been brutally murdered.
Soames' undercover assignment is a journalist for British newspaperman Ben Sanger (Hugh Bonneville), who's no fan of Soames' work. Having arrived in the company of Mrs. Leni Muller (Franke Potente, "Run Lola Run", (1998), two "Bourne Identity" films (2002, 2004) and "American Horror Story"), and her husband, Soames is perceived as a Nazi sympathizer by Sanger.
After an encounter in a casino, while searching for answers regarding Conner's death, Soames becomes secretly involved with Anna Lan-Ting (Li), her husband Anthony (Yun-Fat) and Colonel Tanaka (Watanabe). Unfortunately, screenwriter Hossein Amini's script never really capitalizes on the terror so many endured during that period.
Yes, director Mikael Håfström makes sure there is plenty of violence, blood and dead bodies, but the palpable feeling of true danger is absent. The very accomplished actors present do their best with Amini's work. However, with lines like "we must make it to the port" and "don't let go of my arm" as Soames and Anna are trying desperately to flee the stampeding masses, and, of course, they make it, it's difficult to keep in mind their plight, while wincing at the crappy dialogue.
To make matters worse, there is literally no chemistry between Cusack and Li, who are supposedly wildly attracted to one another. Anna's marriage to Anthony is one of convenience, as Anthony saved her from certain death. And though Soames is sleeping with Mrs. Muller, he's only doing so to spy on her German diplomatic husband. Sheesh --- this is the best Amini could do?
The costumes by Julie Weiss are gorgeous, and set decorator Celia Bobak, along with production designer Jim Clay, have established a sinful, stylish Shanghai. It's all intriguing and breathtaking, along with a mournful, lovely score by Klaus Badelt, but not enough to compensate for the miserable writing.
Opinion: Wait for DVD
Set in Shanghai, China two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, "Shanghai" features John Cusack as Paul Soames, an American secret agent in search of whomever murdered his closest friend, Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), also an American spy.
The Nazis have taken over much of Europe, while the Japanese have annexed most of China, except for the bustling city of Shanghai. While the Japanese and Chinese are busy killing each other, Soames is in and out of hot water trying to solve, and maybe avenge, Conner's slaying. Along the way, Soames meets the beautiful Anna (Gong Li), wife of a local gangster, Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-Fat). Cusack and Li display good chemistry and playful dialogue as they grow to like each other. Meanwhile, a Japanese intelligence officer, Colonel Tanaka (Ken Watanabe), has his own agenda.
The oddity of this film is that shooting began in London in May of 2008, then shifted to Bangkok for three months. The Weinstein Company bought the rights early on, but the movie, although completed about seven years ago, is just now being released. Cusack, 49, was 42 years old when filming began.
"Shanghai" is being hyped as a "Casablanca-type" thriller. While I wouldn't place it in that heady company --- not even close --- it is a decent escapist story. The set and costume designs are lavish, and thousands of Asian extras were used in the frantic closing scenes ***SPOILER ALERT*** where Soames and Anna must pretend to be husband and wife to safely leave Shanghai. That moment, in itself, should have been a jittery one for the viewer, but there's never any doubt the Japanese officer in charge would buy their story.
Soames, meanwhile, has been posing as a journalist, with the always captivating Hugh Bonneville ("Downton Abbey") playing his crusty editor. Veteran actor David Morse is American Consul Richard Astor, and Franke Potente ("Run Lola Run") is the wife of the German Consul, with whom Soames is having an affair. Overall, it's an elaborately conceived script by British writer Hossein Amini, and the film's 104 minute running time seems far longer.
Director Mikael Håfström worked with Cusack three years earlier on "1408". "Shanghai" is certainly an ambitious outing, and it's a beautifully photographed film, but it lacks any real suspense, even when Soames is in the custody of brutal Japanese interrogators. We also never really get to know Conner, so his death has little meaning for us.
It appears that the lengthy delay in releasing the movie is directly related to the perceived quality of the film. Cusack does his best to evoke compassion for his character, and he is quick on his feet, whether trying to woo Anna, or outsmart his captors. But none of it is enough to highly recommend "Shanghai".
Opinion: Wait for DVD