During its production, Shanghai Surprise must have set a record for press coverage of a work-in-progress. The reason, of course, was the presence of its honeymooning co-stars, Sean Penn and Madonna, who quickly became America’s most notorious couple.
Fueling the media’s gung-ho interest was the shyness of the couple. This often found expression through Penn’s unofficial practice of dentistry, in which he forcefully removed the teeth of his least-favorite photographers. Such behavior soon earned the couple the nickname of The Poison Penns.
It also, very probably, created an atmosphere in which most people were eager to see the film fall on its face. As it turns out, that is precisely what has happened.
There’s not much that’s redeemable about Shanghai Surprise, although it probably won’t derail the careers of its stars too much. It should, however, dissuade them from pursuing projects too far afield from their strengths. They’re both out of water here.
Penn plays an opportunistic adventurer, in Shanghai, who looks to make a killing in garish pink-and-green girlie neckties. Madonna is a missionary who’s trying to find an illegal opium cache, in order to make it available to wounded soldiers. She enlists his help, for his connections and translating abilities. This leads them on a series of adventures, surprises, and naturally, romance.
Oh yeah, it’s set in 1938. This means that not only are Penn and the Missus cast against their strengths, they’re also outside their time zone. I sort of like Madonna, but she’s a completely contemporary figure; the ease and hipness she showed in Desperately Seeking Susan are denied her in Shanghai Surprise.
Penn showed himself to be the wiliest of the younger actors in such films as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Bad Boys, and The Falcon and the Snowman. He’s one of these actors who subscribe to the chameleon theory, and he works hard to disappear into each role.
Which is why he’s all wrong for this part. The film (based on a novel called Faraday’s Flowers, by Tony Kenrick) is a throwback to the sort of romantic adventure movie typified by Red Dust, Mogambo (both with Clark Gable), and His Kind of Woman (Robert Mitchum).
Gable and Mitchum could not play all the roles that Sean Penn is capable of doing; but Penn is hopeless when trying to re-create their no-sweat, self-confident poise. The film needs a solid center to counterpoint Madonna’s missionary, but Penn doesn’t provide it.
Shanghai Surprise was directed by Jim Goddard, who has done much work in British television. He should probably lick his wounds and try again, under less insane circumstances.
George Harrison’s Handmade Films produced the movie. The end credits claim that Harrison appears somewhere in the film, as a singer. I may be a dyed-in-the-wool fan of certain British music groups from the 1960s, but even the prospect of Beatle-spotting could not convince me to watch this movie, ever again.
First published in the Herald, September 27, 1986
It’s always nice when a production plagued by controversy turns out to be rather good after all; but in this case, it was just as gratifying somehow that the obnoxious twosome had driven their own movie into the ground. Or maybe it was a misbegotten project from the beginning. Now, if they’d switched roles, and Madonna played the quick-talking hustler and Penn played a nun – then, right there, maybe you got yourself a picture.