Somebody got paid actual money to think up that plot.
Madonna: Seeeeeaaaan, I want to be in that movie.
Sean Penn: Uh, honey, it’s already been made. You just watched it.
Madonna: Then I want to make it again!
Sean Penn: Sweetie, you don’t exactly have any acting talent or—
Sean Penn: [sigh] Let me make some phone calls...
That is how I picture a cinematic wreck like SHANGHAI SURPRISE is born. Typically this first paragraph would point out what I liked about a film, but this time I got nothing. The story is so flimsy it barely registers, the directing is sloppy, and the writing—my God, let me provide you with an example:
Being a work of fiction, I can overlook the inherent irony/implausibility of Madonna being a missionary. But halfway through the movie, in order to coerce Sean Penn to help, what does her character do? She sleeps with him. A woman of God, in a serious turn for the character, bones an alcoholic sleazeball so he’ll help her steal a bunch of opium. Riiiight. The rest of the movie is filled with this kind of nonsense, including some of the worst plot twists I can remember.
The performances don’t help alleviate things either. Madonna—let’s just say her acting hasn’t improved much in the past 20 years. I’m not a fan of Sean Penn as a person, but he very rarely lets me down as an actor. While he's not terrible here (his Mandarin is actually decent), the character he plays is just worthless and his performance doesn’t do much to convince you otherwise. And for an actual married couple (at the time), Penn and Madonna have negative amounts of chemistry together.
Probably the most disappointing part of SHANGHAI SURPRISE is that George Harrison—yes, THE George Harrison—not only wrote the music for the film, but also executive produced and cameos in it. I think out of respect for the late Beatle all copies of SHANGHAI SURPISE should be burned. Don’t even buy it first; just walk in to your local video store and torch it straight from the shelf. I doubt anybody will stop you.
Fans Unite! Commentary: That’s funny; I expected this to be 90 minutes of complete silence. [rimshot] Seriously though, folks, there’s a reason you don’t let fans record a commentary; and that reason is you end up with five guys from something called “Madonna-licious” offering absolutely nothing worthwhile and annoying the hell out of you in the process.
Lights, Camera, Shanghai! (11:31): It’s pretty bad when your retrospective can only get interviews from the writer and one of the minor supporting actors. Both guys hint at some of the production problems (including Penn not wanting to do the movie in the first place). And one even confirms my theory that they were just ripping off ROMANCING THE STONE.
Madonna 1986 (8:48): A couple people from the E! Channel talk about Madonna. I wish I could tell you more but Melissa Rivers was constantly on-screen and thus, to avoid turning to stone, I watched this with my eyes closed and hands over my ears.
I Love SHANGHAI SURPRISE! (15:25): D-level celebrities who couldn’t even make it on VH1’s “I Love The 80s” poke fun at SHANGHAI SURPRISE.
Trailers, including Larry the Cable Guy’s DELTA FARCE.
If you’re looking for a romantic adventure, check out ROMANCING THE STONE. If you’re looking for something fun with some Chinese flavor, watch BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Whatever you do, avoid SHANGHAI SURPRISE and this DVD.
Extra Tidbit: The perverted Chinese doctor who comments on Madonna’s “pagodas” is played by Victor Wong aka Egg Shen aka the Grandpa from 3 NINJAS.