Bad Movies We Love: Shanghai Surprise


I tried so hard to find an Oprah-themed Bad Movie We Love this week. Bad news, my darlings: they're all not good enough. Beloved is too boring, Native Son is too serious, and The Color Purple is too funny. (Trust me.) So I rallied and made big choices. This week I'm commemorating Tree of Life star Sean Penn's filthy past and Oprah's biggest finale guest: the ineffable, the insufferable, La Sleaza Bonita herself, Madonna. Read: THIS IS A GREAT DAY. And the movie is a legend among awful, latrine-stink cinema, a rancid little misfortune cookie called Shanghai Surprise. Or as I prefer to call it: Not-So-Fast Times with Frigid Wife.


Quickest synopsis ever: In 1937 Shanghai, a lowly fortune hunter looking to flee China (Sean Penn) and a stuffy missionary (Madonna) form an unlikely alliance and commit to finding a lost stash of opium that went missing after a rumble the previous year. Madonna's charitable character wants the opium for medicinal purposes because she has a real build-a-girls'-school-in-Africa attitude about things. A romance forms between the married-seeming stars. George Harrison is a producer for some reason. And curtain.

The criminal flaw of Shanghai Surprise is its dullness. That's unforgivable here at Movieline Manor, but this true-blue turd is downright lovable for capturing exactly a time in 1986 when two celebrity supernovas married, agreed to a "vanity" project where Madonna could exercise her Dietrich fetish (Shanghai Express, anyone?), and aired their stilted chemistry for box-office returns. It is avant-garde tabloid drama in an era where Kevin and Britney: Chaotic would've seemed like an indecipherable dystopia. To be fair, it was.


There's Mr. Penn, who in 1986 many people agreed was beginning to seem overhyped. As an attitudinal tie salesman here, he boasts a dinner-theater gusto that says, "I'll be waiting another 17 years for an Oscar." Joke's on the whole world, because Mystic River sucks, too!


Penn's character Glendon Wasey is captured at one point by a villain whose hands were blown off in that botched opium deal. You can see he's torturing Glendon here -- with the neck knives, not the realization that he looks a lot like Ruth Buzzi for some reason.


Here's my feeling about Madonna: Compliment or criticize her for the right reasons. I'm always annoyed by the backhanded tropes that continue to define her legacy. "She reinvents herself!" is one. "She knows how to push buttons!" is another. "She's a smart business woman!" is the biggest. Those are all versions of "Madonna is talentless and relies on tactical measures to stay relevant." What-even-ever. Madonna's legend is in her convulsive, near-unbelievable stage power. Whether she's lip-syncing on American Bandstand in '84 or gyrating in a leotard at 50, Lourdes' mom is the Baryshnikov of pop chutzpah -- vital, undeniable, and fearless. She is more magnetic up there than a rigid iron planet. There.

As for her flaws? Here's one: This is what her acting looks like.


I mean, that's sheer inactivity. That right there. That is not participating in "the work" (as we say in the trade). Madonna's thespian chops have three gears in this movie: "haughty," "babytalk," and "looking over there."


There's the third technique. For some reason, Madonna's character drifts out of her headmistress-ly stoicism and into gushy indulgence halfway through the runtime. It's a reverse-microcosm of Madonna's career! We're starting at Malawi and ending at "Material Girl," see.


Madonna's movie career never quite happened for a number of reasons, and you're right to guess that a talent paucity is one of them. Still, Madonna was great in exactly two films, Desperately Seeking Susan and A League of Their Own. I don't do Evita; too one-note and proud, and the songs suck when they're lowered to Madonna's range. But here's my Madonna-in-movies theory: She can be quite good when she's not responsible for carrying the movie and when she's interacting with mostly female characters. You could even argue that Madonna's chief talent is establishing her singular femininity competitively against other women. She was a professional dancer after all, so audition-clearing womanhood once paid her bills. On film, when she's bantering baseball with Rosie O'Donnell or smirking at Rosanna Arquette, she's a delight and a standout character. It's when she's staring into a dude's eyes onscreen that the spark disappears and the hokey babyfaces begin. She never stood a chance in Shanghai Surprise, mugging across from her chronically chilly husband. I'll leave any other splintering Madonna implications to you.

Now, this is a 1986 movie set in Shanghai. There are practical matters to worry about here. For instance I spent the first 15 minutes of the movie muttering aloud, "Please, God, don't let a respectable craftsman like Victor Wong be in this. Please." You can guess how that prayer turned out. Welcome to Bigger Trouble in Belittled China, Mr. Wong!


For greater offense, add in a seductress named China Doll -- Jesus -- who massages Glendon, strategically offers up sexual favors, and promises to play a strange game of "whip" and "horse" with him. "Where are we going to find a whip?" Glendon asks. She replies, "Where else, but at the end of the horse's tail?" and proceeds to, ahem, whip him with her ponytail. The Oprah finale tribute is now complete, since the birth of Will Smith's daughter Willow (of "Whip My Hair" fame) was officially foreshadowed here.

At least this movie serves one contemporary purpose; for awhile I figured it was valuable only for its opium-grade addictive nostalgia. Sean Penn may have two Oscars propping up his shelf of anti-Robin Wright Penn literature and Madonna may have two stacks of $300 billion holding up Jesus Luz (on an adorable pedestal made of pure money), but neither powerhouse can possess again the clueless and -- weirdly -- cute hope of their elephantine flop. It's a personality shift that makes me ask, "Who was that girl?" Of course, that's a story for another day.


  • Martini Shark says:

    You have to love the simple fact that Madonna is playing a virginal missionary, for heaven's sake (before sleeping with Wesley to keep him under contract). Then there's the key scene in the film where they realize the "flowers" they are after are not opium but jewels; the preacher declares this is a bad thing because they know nothing about jewels, but everyone is fine with a pastor and missionary trying to start a drug trade.
    Best of all is Penn's opening line in the film, setting the mood perfectly: "Right up your neck, you syphilitic pig trash!"
    (Yes, I have overthought this film admittedly)

  • Wellie says:

    Didn't McDonalds do a McNugget themed tie in with this movie when it hit the theatres?
    Or maybe it was just coincidence ?

  • Tenetria says:

    "I don't do Evita..."
    Then I cannot trust you anymore. Good night and thank you, Senor Virtel!

  • Louis Virtel says:

    You are just another suitcase in another hall to me, 'Tria.

  • Ain't That the Truth, Ruth says:

    China cannot possibly be belittled too much, or admired too much. If you lived here, as I have for 5 years, you would know that. And China Doll type women are as common here as bicycles, and certainly more common than fortune cookies, which don't actually exist on the Mainland. So, Ms. I"m So Clever, take off your PC mask long enough to move here for a couple years and see the truths of China, free of your American noblesse oblige. It will shock you what another world is like.

  • Marina72 says:

    I love this film for the great Hollywood romance it tries (and fails) to be. Sean's utter bewilderment as the film falls apart around him. Madonna never looked lovelier, while time has shown that there's more of this character in her than we ever imagined.

  • gjr says:

    Yes, this movie sucks large c**ks in abundance, but it was at this time that my adolescent yearnings for Madonna did a complete about-turn and my focus turned entirely to Sean Penn.....

    BTW, Madonna should be made to sit through this movie at least 50 times, with some kind of metal contraption fitted to her eyelids ensuring that she cannot blink.