Never stepping one foot into China itself, nor one foot into any kind of reality you might recognize apart from vintage movies on cable TV, “Shanghai” limps onto American screens seven years after it began principal photography in London.
The screenplay by Hossein Amini is a convoluted mess, the fakery that turns London locales and elaborate Bangkok sets into 1941 Shanghai eye-catching, performances by a stellar international cast routine and direction by Mikael Håfström inert.
Borrowing a template from such films as “Casablanca” and “The Third Man,” this thriller of international intrigue plays host to a morass of clichés and orientalism salvaged from the Hollywood backlot debris of 75 years ago.
No wonder it took so many years for The Weinstein Co. to release “Shanghai” domestically. (It was released in most territories in 2010.) The only thing the cast can be thrilled about is how young they all look!
In the December week leading up to Pearl Harbor (the same time period as “Casablanca”) American spy Paul Soames (a wooden, low key John Cusack) arrives in the Chinese port city of Shanghai to learn his best buddy and fellow spy has been killed (shades of “The Third Man”).
The world and especially China, much of it occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army, is going up in flames but all Paul is obsessed about is finding his pal’s killer.
His cover is that he’s a reporter for the Shanghai Herald where he writes pro-German nonsense that somehow lands on the front page. No one gets fooled by this disguise. Everyone figures he’s a spy and he spends little time trying to dissuade anyone he’s not.
This is the kind of movie where the hero can walk into a nightclub or fancy party and immediately silkily dressed women, haughty Chinese gangsters, sneering Japanese officers and vital clues about his friend jump out at him from every corner. People buy him drinks but he seldom gets to finish one.
Paul narrates the story in a neo-noir voiceover, tossing off tonally blunted remarks such as “a night at the German embassy can feel like a thousand years.” All women are duplicitous, whores or addicts — got to keep those cultural clichés alive — while the men like to punctuate conversations with gunfire.
Paul is smitten by the gorgeous wife, Anna (Gong Li), of local gangster Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-Fat), but manages to catch the practiced eye of Colonel Tanaka (Ken Watanabe), head of the Japanese secret police.
Paul’s infatuation doesn’t prevent him from keeping clandestine dinner dates with Leni (Franka Potente), wife of the German Consul, as he searches for his buddy’s now disappeared girlfriend, the heroin addict Sumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, who again plays a role that requires her to barely speak).
The story runs in circles and winds up absolutely nowhere since no great secret is uncovered, his buddy’s murder goes unrevenged and the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor anyway. A more pointless movie of mystery and intrigue is hard to imagine.
Mostly Benoit Delhomme’s graceful cameras show off Jim Clay’s considerable and elegant production design that turns landmark English locations into clubs, mansions, a newspaper and restaurants in Shanghai’s international settlement.
Everyone gets to dress in nattily precise period costumes as they glide through dimly lit interiors with Art Deco fittings. This part of the movie, admittedly, is great fun, all aided and abetted by Klaus Badelt’s period-pop music with an Asian flair (along with featured piano soloist Lang Lang).
I see no reason though why you can’t enjoy all this very soon on cable or on-demand in your own living room though. Just remember to bring an opium pipe.
Opens: October 2, 2015 (TWC)
Production companies: The Weinstein Company presents a Phoenix Pictures production
Cast: John Cusack, Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat, Franka Potente, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Rinko Kikuchi, Benedict Wong, Hugh Bonneville, David Morse, Ken Watanabe
Director: Mikael Håfström
Screenwriter: Hossein Amini
Producers: Mike Medavoy, Barry Mendel, Donna Gigliotti, Jake Myers
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Kelly Carmichael, David Thwaites, Arnold W. Messer, Steven Squillante
Director of photography: Benoit Delhomme
Production designer: Jim Clay
Music: Klaus Badelt
Costume designer: Julie Weiss
Editors: Peter Boyle, Kevin Tent
R rating, 104 minutes