Image from Collider.com
It took years to finally get distributed and became one of the few Hollywood films to not be premiered in the U.S. first. Perhaps because of that, reviews of Weinstein-backed Shanghai are somewhat hard to find. Still, a few sites and newspapers have taken it upon themselves to chat about the film, so here’s the buzz!
Shanghai, starring John Cusack as an American intelligence officer, Gong Li as a spy/gangster mole and Chow Yun Fat as a gangster, was originally supposed to open in time for the 2008 awards season. Unfortunately, delays plagued the set – from the Weinsteins being refused a shooting permit for Shanghai (instead being moved to Thailand) to a long, long wait for distribution approval in China.
Last month, it finally got permission to premier at the Shanghai International Film Festival, where it was pitched as a sort of Casablanca tribute. While I understand the need to give the audience an idea of what they’re about to see, isn’t that kind of setting expectations a little high? Almost every review I found has taken pains to mention that while it’s not terrible, it’s definitely no Casablanca. Hm.
Anyhow, the reviews:
The plot is too complex, Gong Li’s acting is wooden and there’s far too much voice-over. Spectacular though she is, Li can’t carry a part in English, or at least not a part that relies heavily on dialogue, as opposed to speed boats (think Miami Vice). Here we get the usual ice maiden-cold eyes staring through cigarette smoke, indifferent to violence, concealing such inner pain-but when she opens her mouth you have to read the subtitles to figure out what she’s talking about.
Cusack, usually one of the most likable Hollywood heroes, lurches around the screen as a hard-bitten agent out for revenge, narrating in gumshoe clichés, whisky glass in hand. The most enjoyable performance is from Chow Yun-Fat as Triad boss Anthony Lan-Ting. But he’s dispensed of early in the proceedings and doesn’t reappear until the inevitable explosive climax, by which point we defy you to know what exactly is going on or where your sympathies lie.
Short of having the Warner Bros. logo at the start, and Humphrey Bogart walk on screen and say “Play it again, Chan,” Shanghai is the closest thing to an oriental version of Casablanca in colour and widescreen as you’re likely to get. The surprising thing is that it pretty much works, on its own deliberately pulpy level, and even manages to pack some genuine emotion into its final section and must-make-the-last-ship-out finale. The central plot doesn’t really manage to combine the main character’s personal and professional quests, and some interesting side characters get beached by the tight editing; but while it’s running on screen, Shanghai doesn’t bore for a second.
Shanghai is mostly a good film, at least during the first 60 minutes. The general background set against war and a metropolis, an agent with double identities, death and cheating, gangsters and politicians, a mysterious lady and predictable triangle love, two thirds of Shanghai successfully stirs memories of Hollywood classic thrillers and film noir of the 1940s.
Sadly, director Mikael Hafstrom loses his control over the last 30 minutes, where he dangles the work somewhere in between thriller and romance.