Shanghai Surprise: The Movie That Hobbled Handmade Films

shanghai surprise penn madonna

For some reason, after a run of fairly succesful, low budget projects, Handmade Films decided in 1986 that they wanted a screwball comedy with some star wattage. What they got was a god-awful mess that blew up in their faces, and nearly scuppered them; Shanghai Surprise, a vanity project for Madonna and her then husband, the firebrand Sean Penn, who liked to use the paparazzi as punchbags.

In 1937 Shanghai, tie salesman and chancer Glendon Wasey (Penn) hooks up with the most unlikely missionary ever, Gloria Tatlock (Madge), to find a lost stash of opium from a botched drug deal. Madonna wants it to relieve wounded Chinese rebels  fighting the occupying Japanese army, Penn just wants to make some badly needed money. He is chased by the villain who lost the opium in the first place. Bizarrely, his hands were blown off in the deal. Maybe he wrote the script. it’s certainly ham-fisted.

shanghai surprise rickshaws

Penn and Madonna were newly married, and had a volatile relationship with each other, never mind the press. George Harrison quickly realised what he’d let himself and his company’s crew in for. Of Madonna, he drily said “She doesn’t have a sense of humour, which is unfortunate, ’cause it was a comedy.” He believed Penn was “a pain in the ass.” The film is a generic caper film, where we are supposed to see the main couple squabble then fall in love, while evading shady underworld types. Penn was so arrogant at the time he told a studio publicist “This film doesn’t need publicity. The people will go to see it because we’re in it.” The laugh was on him, it bombed, not making a cent in profit.

Shanghai Surprise didn’t even warrant an offical soundtrack album. Harrison tried to salvage costs by lifting the several sub-par songs he wrote (he also cameos as a band musician in a night club scene) for his Cloud Nine album. The lyrics to the theme song are terrible, with lines like “It’s getting hot for me, like tofu when it deep fries.” The truly terrible songs serve only to illuminate the deathly pace and stilted performances. A good supporting cast is tragically wasted in this. Paul Freeman, who threatened to steal the show as Belloq in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, is a villain (Faraday), as is Richard Griffiths, famously the rotten Uncle Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter series.

When Penn first appears, a year after the opium deal, he is shirtless and unshaven, drunkenly raving at a boat master on the quayside. He looks like he’s channeling Bobcat Goldthwait. His hair is another example of his overweening ego. Who in 1927 has a mullet?

shaghai surprise mullet 2

Madonna pitches up in a rickshaw and for some reason known only to the God her missionary prays to, she decides Penn  is the man she needs to get her mission up and running. It’s far too tedious to go into the plot any further, as I don’t think the writers even knew what was going on. At one point, Penn is seduced by a villainous femme fatale called, get this, China Doll. She practises the art of “whip” and “horse” by, uh, whipping his face with her ponytail. Penn is later kidnapped by mr stumpy wrists, Mei Gan, who sticks him in a contraption with knives pressing into his neck. Penn cracks and tells him what he’s after, next scene he’s being nursed back to health by Madonna, no clue as to how he got away.

sean penn

Madonna decides the only way to get Penn on board in the search for the opium is to sleep with him. This has to be one of the most stiffly unerotic scenes ever committed to film, even worse than when she dripped hot wax all over Willem Defoe. When Penn gives in to her frosty eyed entreaties, he exclaims “I’m obligated! I’m obligated!” Listen Penn, I’M the one who was obligated to watch this turkey! Madonna is as stiff and unyielding as she was before. Elsewhere in the film, her various acting gimicks consist of furrowing her brow and standing on tip-toe looking off in the distance.

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There aren’t even any funny lines in this so-called comedy. Just dead-eyed delivery of clunking awfulness. At one point Madonna says in that monotone of hers, “Guns cause pain. Opium eases pain.” I wish I had some opium now, Madge. Of course, they have been pawns in Faraday’s plan all along, to get the opium for him with no risk to himself. He has been monitoring things all along in very bad disguise as Madonna’s assistant Mr Burns. And he would have got away with it, if it wasn’t for those middling (yes, middling actor) kids. If you must watch it, the entire film is on you tube.


Originally posted 2013-02-05 21:48:11. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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