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Shanghai Surprise (1986) – DVD Review

DVD cover art for Shanghai Surprise


Written by John Kohn and Robert Bentley, based on the novel Faraday’s Flowers by Jim Goddard
Directed by Peter S. Fischer, Richard Levinson, William Link
Starring Madonna, Sean Penn, Paul Freeman, Richard Griffiths, Philip Sayer

Released by: Artisan.
Rating: PG-13
Region: 1
Anamorphic: Nope and a full frame transfer to boot.

My Advice: Don’t bother even if you’re a Madonna fan.

Faraday’s Flowers is a legend that no one seriously believes in. In 1937, Walter Faraday (Freeman), the Opium King, was one step ahead of the Japanese army invading Shanghai. He had over 1100 pounds of opium to maintain his lifestyle. But because of circumstances and double-crosses too complicated to go into, the opium disappeared and has never resurfaced. One year later, Mr. Burns (Michael Aldridge) and Miss Gloria Tatlock (Madonna), administrators of a charity hospital, are looking for the flowers to use as painkillers for their suffering patients. They recruit Glendon Wasey (Penn) to help them out because of his fluent Chinese and his shady character, since they have to deal with some pretty shady characters in search of the Flowers. They run into baseball-loving gangsters, Imperial concubines, sadistic police, and enough double crosses to kill a vampire at fifty paces.

Madonna from Shanghai Surprise

Gigli has been just another recent example of a type of movie better known for the over-hyped relationship of its leading actors than the quality, good or bad, of the film itself. The absolute pinnacle of this, of course, is Cleopatra, where the fiery relationship of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton engaged the press more than this early big budget blockbuster. But for the MTV Generation, sadly, we have Shanghai Surprise. What surprised me about this movie was nothing to do with Shanghai, but that George Harrison, formerly of the Beatles, was one of the producers. The only way I can wrap my head around this fact is he was looking for a tax dodge by financing this piece of pig offal, since before this he had had sense enough to produce Python films.

The writing is confusing in both plot and direction. It veers drunkenly from screwball comedy to action-adventure with no consideration for balance. I have not found any news reports to corroborate this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Asian-Americans didn’t pitch a fit over how the Chinese were depicted in this movie. Madonna and Penn are so wrong in their roles and Penn should have known better, but Madonna has earned a reputation for picking projects that are turkeys.

There are no extras on this disc, which shouldn’t be a surprise, since I bet most of the people involved want to forget this waste of celluloid exists. What’s even worse is the case the movie comes in says that the film is shown in its original 4:3 format, which fits the standard TV screen. However, according to other sources, it was shot in 1.85:1 format, the standard widescreen movie ratio. So if the studio thought it wasn’t worth releasing in widescreen, well…that’s telling you something, isn’t it?