Review of Shanghai (谍海风云；U.S.A., 2010), A Phoenix Pictures production, released by The Weinstein Co..
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Producers: Donna Gigliotti, Barry Mendel, Mike Medavoy, Jake Myers
Executive Producer: Arnold Messer, David Thwaites, Steven Squillante
Screenwriter: Hossein Amini
Editor: Peter Boyle
Music: Klaus Bedelt
Cinematographer: Benoit Delhomme
Art Director: Jim Clay
Costume Designer: Julie Weiss
Cast: John Cusack, Gong Li, Chow Yun-fat, Ken Watanabe, David Morse, Franke Potente, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Rinko Kikuchi
Running time: 104 MIN.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Kerr of The Hollywood Reporter at the 2010 Shanghai International Film Festival
Bottom Line: Hoary WWII romantic thriller bites off far more than it can chew and chokes on its own ambitions.
Shanghai, a would-be World War II epic romance with a chaser of intrigue, comes with a boatload of production gossip because of China’s refusal to allow shooting in the country and an editing process that lasted nearly two years.
The film, which finally made its debut at the Shanghai International Film Festival, is no game-saver for the Weinstein Co. as it lacks the stylistic and narrative punch needed to separate itself from the pack.
In Asia, pan-continental stars Gong Li, Chow Yun-fat and Ken Watanabe will generate interest. Domestically, the film will face its biggest hurdle in its undetermined release date. Boxoffice prospects look middling at best, if not outright bleak.
In an overstuffed mash-up of Purple Butterfly, Lust Caution, Witness and a touch of Hanover Street, the story begins in late 1941 with American spy Paul Soames (John Cusack, not nearly cynical enough) being interrogated by occupied Shanghai’s Japanese security chief (Watanabe). The latter wants to know where to find a missing woman, a question Soames can’t answer.
Soames is in Shanghai at the behest of his boss (David Morse) to look into the murder of his colleague and best friend, Connor (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Soames gets pulled into cloak-and-dagger Resistance action when he’s compelled to cozy up to local gangster and possible collaborator Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow) and his beautiful wife, Anna (Gong).
Shanghai does not suffer from poor production or ineptitude: Production designer Jim Clay (Children of Men), costume designer Julie Weiss (Hollywoodland) and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme (The Proposition) have each proved more than capable of elegantly and vividly rendering select times and places onscreen. Despite its Thai shooting locations, Shanghai has a nice hard-boiled vibe and a sense of semi-exotic danger.
However, Mikael Hafstrom (the moderate art house hit Evil and Cusack’s 1408) and writer Hossein Amini (Jude, Killshot) overcook the rice. There is a simplistic nature to the narrative and archetypes that gum up the works. Some of this stems from Shanghai‘s schizophrenic personality. The film tries to be a romance, political thriller and historical drama but winds up merely muddled and scattered.
Cusack and Gong generate little in the way of sexual tension. The all-important kiss-or-fight sequence has zero erotic charge, coming off as a spat between siblings. Watanabe, one of Asia’s most dignified actors, is forced to maneuver around unwieldy stereotyping.
Chow could do a duplicitous Triad in his sleep, but his sketchy character doesn’t really pop until he gets a moment to channel Hard Boiled. In a microscopic role as a key witness/love interest, Kikuchi Rinko (Babel) does … not much.
It has been a while since an old-fashioned wartime spy thriller graced screens, so Shanghai tries hard to squeeze every single element that made the greats great into its frame. In the end, Shanghai is a long way from Casablanca.