[box cover]

Shanghai Surprise

It's a safe bet that just about every star in Hollywood has at least one or two bad and/or embarrassing movies on the résumé — from Demi Moore's turn in Parasite to Tom Hanks' debut in He Knows You're Alone. But only Sean Penn and Madonna are lucky enough to have Shanghai Surprise (1986), a movie at once so bad and so embarrassing that over the years it's earned a reputation somewhere on a par with Ishtar. That reputation is, sadly, very well-deserved. A muddled, unfunny mess of a romantic comedy/mystery (based on the novel Faraday's Flowers by Tony Kenrick), the film follows the misadventures of righteous missionary Gloria Tatlock (Madonna) and self-serving rapscallion Glendon Wasey (Penn) as they attempt to track down a long-lost cache of opium in 1938 Shanghai. The film's first big problem should be evident from the previous sentence: Madonna playing a missionary(?!) The sight of the Material Girl in bobby socks and a prim blue suit is one of the few funny things in the movie; too bad the laughs are unintentional. She improves slightly as Miss Tatlock loosens up a bit, but it's all on a relative scale — her acting is wooden at best ("Oh my gosh," she says flatly, upon discovering that Glendon has been tortured by a vengeful cop). Penn — an actor capable of much more than his erstwhile missus — fares only slightly better; it's almost as if he threw up his hands at some point and said "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." But it's not fair to just blame the actors for this disaster; director Jim Goddard (who has found refuge behind TV cameras in the years since this film debuted) and writers John Kohn and Robert Bentley do a dandy job of making the plot difficult to follow and the exposition boring and obvious. In the end, it's their failings, rather than the actors', that point out the most frustrating about Shanghai Surprise: The feeling that in the hands of a more capable group of people, a film set in the bustling, mysterious world of 1930s China could have been a fun, twisty piece of moviemaking. Instead, what they got was something roughly on par with Madonna and Penn's short-lived marriage — an impending disaster from the get-go. The folks at Artisan seem to at least partially agree; zero effort was put into preparing the film for its bare-bones DVD release. The full-frame transfer is grainy and cloudy (and the color often seems off), the Dolby 2.0 Surround audio isn't very exciting, and there's nary an extra to be found. Closed-captioning, keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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