Awfully Good: Shanghai Surprise

Early word is that Sean Penn's THE GUNMAN is shooting blanks. But surely it can't be worse than… 

Shanghai Surprise (1986)

Director: Jim Goddard
Stars: Sean Penn, Madonna, Richard Griffiths


In 1930s China, a missionary nurse and a glow-in-the-dark tie salesman get involved in a quest to find a mythical stockpile of opium.  

Sometimes movies are so bad that you can't even fathom how they were created, but I know exactly how SHANGHAI SURPRISE came about: Madonna watched ROMANCING THE STONE and turned to her newlywed husband Sean Penn and demanded that they remake it immediately. That is the only explanation for this blatant romantic-comedy-adventure ripoff that's completely lacking in romance, laughs and excitement. It's truly a Razzie-winning disaster on all fronts—the story is so flimsy it barely registers, the directing is equal parts lazy and sloppy, and the writing—my God, the writing. It's no coincidence that neither of the credited screenwriters on this movie ever got work again.

The filmmakers couldn't even be bothered to edit out all the duck photobombs. 

While the title sounds like it could be an acrobatic sex position or an Asian ladyboy brothel, SHANGHAI SURPRISE is actually much less fun than either of those things. The story centers on a pious, straight-laced missionary (Madonna) who must team up with a gambling drunkard (Penn). (He has nude women on his necktie and tattooed on his arm, so you just know these two won't get along!) And what could possibly bring these two together? Madonna wants to track down a mythical supply of stolen opium so that she can use it to selflessly ease the pain of injured soldiers at her hospital. The only reason she needs Penn's degenerate lowlife is to act as translator on her quest. Even though pretty much every Chinese person they encounter in the movie already speaks English.

Sean Penn's Dutch Ovens would make for a great band name.

Being a work of fiction, I can overlook the inherent irony/implausibility of Madonna playing a missionary. Especially a missionary who smokes and knows how to pick pockets and locks. However, halfway through the movie, in order to coerce Sean Penn to help—she has sex 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. Not only that, she essentially forces herself on him despite his constant protests. But it's not rape; she's just putting him "under obligation." Boy, she really wants to help those soldiers!

"Hmmmm, I thought they'd be pointier." 

The performances don’t alleviate things either. You can actually see Madonna trying to remember her lines and when she does manage to deliver them, they range from comically unbelievable to "Has she never interacted with another human before?!" (The singer definitely earned her Razzie award for this.) Penn isn't terrible but he seems lost with the mess of a script and some of his choices are just bizarre. The big issue though is that for people who were married at the time of filming, Madonna and Penn have absolutely zero chemistry together. It's actually amazing to see them fumble around on screen and completely fail to portray two people falling in love. At one point the film takes a detour so Penn's character can get laid by a royal concubine and he has a more natural rapport with her than he does his real-life wife. 

The only other face you might recognize is that of Victor Wong aka Egg Shen aka the Grandpa from 3 NINJAS, who has a brief role as a creepy old man who calls Madonna's breasts "pagodas."

Grandpa Tanaka had big plans for his great-grandkids in 3 NINJAS: CYBORG GENERATION. 

There are a couple entertainingly bad parts about SHANGHAI SURPRISE that keep it from being completely unbearable. For one, the villain gets his hands blown off and replaces them with porcelain mannequin hands. It's pure joy watching him awkwardly use his lifeless extremities like real hands throughout the film, from smoking a cigarette to attempting to injure Sean Penn with a handshake. There's also the unbelievable chase sequence where the characters actually stop, get in a rickshaw, and then have some poor Chinese guys run them the rest of the way. They even bribe the men with a few pennies to run faster when the other rickshaw is gaining on them. Everything else about the movie makes about as much sense as that. And that goes for the ridiculous twist ending that turns an already overly-complicated plot in to complete head-scratching nonsense. 

Sean didn't have the heart to tell Morris that he'd molded his Shocker hand incorrectly. 

Probably the most disappointing part of SHANGHAI SURPRISE, however, 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; if you see one at the store or at someone's house, just set it on fire. I doubt anybody will stop you.

Just a friendly reminder that Sean Penn is a scumbag and was later arrested for tying Madonna to a chair and beating her for NINE HOURS. He also hit her in the head with a baseball bat.

Watch as Sean Penn and Madonna embarrass themselves. 

The villain's farewell to arms, a ridiculous rickshaw chase and Madonna forcing Sean Penn to have sex with her.

Even though she plays a missionary, Madonna still manages to show you her bra. 

Worsen international relations! Buy this movie here!

Take a shot or drink every time:
  • Sean Penn takes a drink
  • Madonna the missionary does something bad (smokes, steals, lies, etc.)
  • Mr. Kronk appears out of nowhere
  • One of the lead actors smells
  • Someone double crosses someone else
  • A George Harrison song plays
Double shot if:
  • Someone gets their hands blown off

Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email or follow him on Twitter and give him an excuse to drink.

Source: JoBlo.com



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