Shanghai Surprise Review
Having previously issued the likes of Mona Lisa, The Long Good Friday and Withnail & I onto DVD, Anchor Bay are now facing the other end of the Handmade Films spectrum and issuing the lesser titles. Of late we’ve had the Michael Caine debacle that was Water and, in this case, Shanghai Surprise, the infamous 80s turkey which paired Madonna and then-husband Sean Penn. Indeed, for all the unsavoury reputation which this particular screen venture has, not to mention the alarm bells which should ring owing to the singer’s presence, it really is quite shocking as to how awful Shanghai Surprise is. Set in the 1930s, it inexplicably envisions Madonna as a missionary and from this point onwards visibly struggles. Certainly, there’s a pleasant enough song-based score from ex-Beatle/Handmade impresario George Harrison, as well as reliable enough support from Penn and esteemed character actor Richard Griffiths, but then this isn’t really a film in which any particular element is allowed to shine.
Part of the problem is the fact that Shanghai Surprise’s reference points are clearly far superior to the end results here. The Indiana Jones films play a particularly important part given the 1930s setting and yarn-like mentality to the proceedings, whilst those old Clark Gable romantic action melodramas (China Seas and the like) also figure prominently. Yet Madonna cannot be compared to Jean Harlow no matter how hard she tries and/or wishes, whilst Penn looks too youthful and (unavoidably?) thuggish to bear comparisons to any of the old time Hollywood actors. Furthermore, the plotting simply isn’t there despite the film having been based on a novel (Faradays's Flowers by Tony Kenrick). Admittedly, we do at least get a string of set pieces, but then there’s no real hook or impetus with which to get us from one to the other; the film seems to lurch along rather than glide in the manner of the Gable movies or the various Indiana Jones’.
And yet, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. The director is, after all, one Jim Goddard who had previously imposed the hideous Parker on us, another romantic comedy-adventure hybrid, in this case pairing Bryan Brown and Cheri Lunghi. As with Shanghai Surprise it was a film which really wanted to be a lightweight little yarn, yet in doing so Goddard made the crucial mistake of not taking his efforts in any way seriously. The results therefore are strictly awful - films which don’t work as comedies, as action movies or as love stories. Essentially, there’s nothing there leaving only an empty, instantly forgettable experience. Indeed, there have been so many bad Madonna movies by now that Shanghai Surprise is simply another one to contribute to the pile.
Perhaps inevitably, Shanghai Surprise’s DVD incarnation is more than a little under whelming. Anchor Bay have followed their usual practice of including optional DD5.1 and DTS soundtracks to go along with the original stereo recording, plus they’ve maintained the film’s original aspect ratio (1.85:1) and presented it anamorphically, yet elsewhere it’s all a little too underwhelming. With regards to the image quality we’re faced with a clean enough print, but also one that is perhaps a little too grainy and as such suffers from intermittent artefacting problems. The soundtrack too is problematic with synchronisation issues arising at around the three-quarters mark - a flaw, incidentally, which affects all three options. Meanwhile, there really isn’t all that great a difference between the DD5.1 and the DTS, whilst both also come across as less effective than the original, especially when it comes to Harrison’s score. As for extras, here we find only brief bios for Madonna and Penn, plus the original theatrical trailer.