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I get a lot of stuff I didn't ask for to review, and I always try to follow through for distributors, but sometimes something I know I hate makes its way into my mailbox. I tried watching Shanghai Surprise on television and couldn't make it. It's a boring mess that goes nowhere, takes forever to find its plot, it’s horrendously acted, and its dialogue is comparable to birthing porcupines from one's ears. It's depressing mess that reflects badly on all '80s pop culture, and I don't even like '80s pop culture.

Shanghai Surprise
I don't even know how to sum up the plot beyond the fact that there's a fortune in opium flowers that Madonna the missionary and Sean Penn the homeless man (I guess that's what he is) are hunting down. Penn wants money, Madonna wants to give the drug to WWII servicemen to ease pain. The pair is double-crossed at every turn, but still find the time to fall in love along the way.

It's like someone collected the worst elements of Romancing the Stone (which is just an Indiana Jones rip-off any way), hired a made-for-TV director on a coke binge, blackmailed Penn and Madonna into acting as awfully as possible, then dared George Harrison to produce the thing. The only memorable element is the fact that it starred then newlyweds Madonna and Sean Penn. It was the original Gigli. Great.

The newlyweds are both epically bad. The Material Girl's never been much of an actress, but here she's especially vile, and appears to be reading her lines from cue cards, without any sense of inflection or rhythm. And she blinks so often one wonders if she's suffering from pink-eye. Some girls romance, some girls slow dance, some girls should probably just stick to singing pop songs. Penn, who I've always thought was over-rated, looks embarrassed, as if the awful, cliché lines he's forced to speak are actually hurting him. Either that or he was too busy beating up paparazzi to concern himself with petty luxuries like acting.

Shanghai Surprise
Shanghai Surprise is one of those notoriously awful movies that lives up to its decades of anti-hype. It really is one of the worst major studio releases I've ever seen, and fall face flat on almost every level possible. It isn't even any good as a 'fun-bad' movie because it's trying to be campy. It's hard to laugh at the ineptitude of a film that's actually cracking jokes. The only thing I can find funny is Madonna's absolute lack of even the smallest iota of acting ability. Recut the film as a 30-minute reel of her making an ass out of herself and you just might have something.

The worst part? Everyone already knows the film is awful. It was winning the Razzy when I was still a child. Critics were writing hilarious diatribes against it when I was in grade school. Audiences were railing against it when I was still playing with Star Wars toys. The worst part is that I'm left with nothing clever to say about how vile this film really is. The visuals are flaccid, the action is flat, the acting is ripe, the script is a hokey mess of missed jokes and obvious double-crosses (honestly, if you didn't notice Paul Freeman's dual role you deserve this mess), and the music is far below the normal abilities of George Harrison (the best Beatle). Though it's still not as bad as White Chicks.

Shanghai Surprise


According to the fan commentary, LionsGate has really gone to town polishing this turd. Apparently the original Artisan release was pretty awful (I have a feeling someone at Artisan gave up the remastering process after a dozen technicians plucked out their own eyeballs in protest). This is a pretty decent transfer for a 21-year-old film. Details are occasionally marred by noise, but colours are bright and accurate without blooming, and artefacts are almost unnoticeable. Objects in motion have a slight blur as well. The transfer’s biggest problem is its overall softness, though this may have something to do with focus choices on the part of director Jim Goddard.


I still can't believe this soundtrack was written by George freakin' Harrison. It's just bad. It sounds nice and clear here, on this new Dolby Digital 5.1 track (my heart goes out to the poor sap that spent hours remixing it). There aren't any elaborate surround effects to be found, but everything is well balanced, and only occasionally muddy. Madonna's flatly delivered lines are clear as Evian, and Penn's embarrassed muttering is as discernable as it can ever get. The track is pretty much just the original surround track (also included) with some added bass.

Shanghai Surprise


LionsGate obviously heard that the campy special edition of Paul Verhoven's Showgirls had made a couple bucks, and desperately searched their acquired Artisan vaults in the hopes of finding another 'cult classic' bad movie that gay men love. This was the best they could do. This isn't much of a party DVD though, but it does have a fan commentary. The 'fan' commentary (I use the word lightly because these guys don't really seem to like the movie all that much) is made up of grown men that are obsessed with Madonna. One guy is totally informative, the other three or four are pretty much just chatting, but all the fellas are intelligent, and don't gush. It isn't much fun, but is still the ideal way to watch the film.

Apparently Sean Penn and Madonna weren't really up for taking about the movie that almost destroyed them. Actually only actor Clyde Kusatsu and writer Robert Bentley are willing to talk about the debacle. Lights, Camera, Shanghai is a brief featurette basically split between Bentley talking about the film's production, and Kusatsu dishing on the backstage antics. Shockingly, Penn and Madonna weren't very easy to work with. End sarcasm.

This is followed by a featurette about Madonna, which starts as some kind of retrospective of the year 1986, but turns into a butt-kiss-festival. Basically a small group of people that adore Madonna have been gathered to tell us why she's so great. The thing is very obviously bereft of Madonna's music.

The eye gouging comes to an end with a featurette featuring 'comedians' making fun of the film, whilst still loving it. This bit drags on and on, and isn't the least bit funny. Sad comes to mind. A whole bunch of entirely unrelated trailers precede the feature as well.

Shanghai Surprise


Shanghai Surprise is even worse than I ever imagined. This DVD need only apply to rabid Madonna fans that are just going to stick it on the shelf with their other memorabilia, sado-masochists that can't afford that full sized, Inquisition-era rack they had their eye on, and suicide cases in need of that extra push over the edge. I'm pretty sure even these people shouldn't risk a purchase.