Period drama Shanghai, starring John Cusack and directed by Mikael Hafstrom, has all the visual ingredients to make it a gripping, sexy as hell thriller.
Shanghai, starring John Cusack and directed by Mikael Hafstrom, has all the
visual ingredients to make it a gripping, sexy as hell thriller. Shanghai
itself, with its bustling, cramped streets, scary armed men around every corner
and menacing half-light becomes the most important character, and its powers
Cusack plays an American in the Chinese city during World
War II to investigate the death of a friend, and while he’s there unearths a
political conspiracy and ends up falling for a beautiful young Chinese woman,
whose back-story is as enigmatic as the city.
From the wispy trails of cigarette smoke to its dark
casinos, to the femme fatales and the relentless rain which (always, fittingly,
at the climax of an action scene) beats down on seedy side-streets, Shanghai is
intended to be pure film noir. Unfortunately, the lacklustre plot doesn’t do
justice to the visuals.
Shanghai, a US/Chinese co-production, was co-financed by
the Weinstein brothers no less, so there was no lack of money poured into it. In
fact, with a budget of $50 million, it could be the biggest straight to DVD
movie ever seen by Western audiences.
But one of the main reasons for its failure is a totally
miscast Cusack as Paul Soames. He seems visibly uncomfortable playing the
enigmatic American spy posing as a journalist. He can do mixed-up, music-loving romantics (High Fidelity) but as a spy with a
supposedly dark past, Cusack is barely believable. You almost cringe when he
comes out with lines like (trying to work out what makes the leading lady, wife
of gangster boss, tick): “She was like a puzzle. So I stared at her till she
It’s a shame, because Swedish director Halstrom was born
in Shanghai and this visually arresting film was clearly a labour of love for
him. But beyond its looks – particularly in the form of the stunning actress Gong Li – Shanghai’s tales of political
intrigue and volatile relationships fail to truly grip the viewer.