Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
There are some movies that, no matter how hard they try, just don’t work. All the elements are there for audiences to make a cinematic connection – yet the result is far less than engaging. It’s sorta like fitting a square peg into a round hole. That’s how I describe director Mikael Håfström’s SHANGHAI. The espionage-tinged romantic melodrama was shot back in 2010 and, for one mysterious reason or another, wound up being shelved for the past five years. While it doesn’t have a tangible stale feeling, it lacks genuine thrills and refreshing genre twists to make this ordinary feature extraordinary.
It’s 1941 when American spy Paul Soames (John Cusack) arrives in “the Paris of the Orient,” as he says, undercover as a journalist for the Shanghai Herald. He’s really there to keep watch over his bestie Dennis Conner (played by actor who dies in 85% of his films, Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who’s stumbled into a scandalous mess involving a doped-up prostitute (Rinko Kikuchi). After Conner turns up dead, Paul’s information leads him to investigate two potential suspects: Captain Tanaka (Ken Wantanabe) and the guy that does his dirty work Anthony Lanting (Chow Yun-Fat). However, Lanting’s wife, Anna (Gong Li) enters the red-herring race, proving she too might have something to do with that mysterious call girl.
There’s a lot that we learn about the political climate through Cusack’s incessant narration, a screenwriting crutch that deflates the tension. Hossein Amini’s narrative errs too often on the predictable side, feeling bloated around the mid-way point. Things pick up again once details emerge in a clearer historical context, but it’s too late as we were ready to end our travels twenty minutes prior. There are scenes that don’t make any sense – stuff saved from the cutting room floor. Case in point: There’s a waltz between Paul and Anna where they converse while dancing but we never see their lips moving. Character motivations – especially Anna’s – are a study in extremes. She’s plotting to kill her powerful husband, but later decides not to for no reason. Not even because she’s falling for Paul, because of course she is. We know this from the hilariously over-the-top record player crank turning metaphor. A shootout at the Cathay Hotel is not only visually disjointed, but also narratively. There’s also a confusing subplot about Paul schtupping a very married Leni Müller (played by a criminally underused Franka Potente), in which it initially seems she knows Paul is a spy – but it turns out she had no idea.
Though the material is subpar at best, what’s astounding is how it managed to bring the star-studded ensemble together. And they give it their all too. Cusack, Fat and Wantanabe all have an insane amount of on-screen chemistry. It’s so striking audiences will wish they were watching a more clever spy saga, or a tale set in an entirely different genre altogether. Li hasn’t aged a day since her debut, and is superb at playing the femme fatale. Benedict Wong also commands the screen in his “blink and you’ll miss him” role as a henchman. Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography sparkles, augmenting the noir-inspired hero’s journey. Jim Clay’s production design also stands out as the glittering, at times grimy, showpiece on which the stage is set. He, the art directors and set decorator Celia Bobak do an impeccable job making this adventure deeply immersive. Julie Weiss’ costume design is equally breathtaking, although I may have spotted a non-period appropriate stiletto heel sported by Li in a few spots.
Perhaps the greatest mystery this film never solves isn’t why Shanghai fell, but rather how such a magnificent cast was ever swayed to climb aboard.
SHANGHAI opens in limited release on October 2.