For those of you who have been following The Awards Circuit for many years now (probably even going back to the days of The Oscar Igloo), this title might be familiar to you. Yes, for a number of years, starting around 2009 or 2010, I’d predict John Cusack to get his first Oscar nomination for Shanghai. Then, it just didn’t come out. Finally though, after about a half decade on the shelf, it’s hitting theaters. Alas, it was not worth the wait. A murder mystery that desperately wants to be a prestige laden period piece, Shanghai is frankly more or less a bore. It’s a shame too, as the talent involved in this film is considerable. There’s an admirable amount of ambition here on the part of director Mikael Håfström and writer Hossein Amini, but it just never is properly translated on to the screen. Had it worked, this would have been an old fashioned spy flick set during wartime, and those are often deeply satisfying. The movie plods along, thinking that it’s far more interesting than it is, while Cusack and company do their best to make the plot developments feel meaningful. It’s a losing battle though, so while Cusack is game to try and save this film, it’s an effort that’s doomed to failure. I’m glad I finally got to see Shanghai, but I regretfully must inform you that there was good reason not to be in any hurry to release it in theaters…
The set up for the movie is a classic one and sets things off on a decent note. It’s set in 1941, which is the period before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and took over the city of Shanghai while also obviously involving the United States in World War II. Our protagonist is an American spy named Paul Soames (John Cusack), under cover as a journalist after doing a similar type of job in Berlin. His editor Ben Sanger (Hugh Bonneville) suspects he’s a Nazi sympathizer, but Paul is there to help out old friend and fellow government agent Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). That’s his initial intention, but no sooner has he arrived than he’s informed by his boss Richard Astor (David Morse) that Conner has been murdered. His body was found near the home of his mistress Sumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), who was hoping for his assistance in getting a passport and leaving. As Paul investigates, he comes into contact with crime boss Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-fat), his wife Anna (Gong Li), counter-intelligence man Captain Tanaka (Ken Watanabe), and other shady characters. The start has potential, but it’s not long until the film sinks into a river of monotony. It’s only about an hour and 40 minutes long, but it feels almost double that length.
In terms of the acting, this is a surprisingly shallow flick. John Cusack gets what could have been a great role in a more confident writer/director’s hands, but he does do what he can. Mostly, Cusack is required to brood and wander from place to place. He’s solid, but it’s an underwritten part. Again, some tinkering could have made this memorable, but that goes for every element of the production, so it’s somewhat redundant to say. No one fares any better than Cusack, they just have less time on the screen. The likes of Rinko Kikuchi, Gong Li, David Morse, and especially Ken Watanabe are just totally wasted. Hugh Bonneville and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are under used as well (which is being rather generous), while the supporting cast also includes Christopher Buchholz, Franka Potente, Benedict Wong, and more. Everyone seems to have set out with the same noble goal of making an old fashioned epic, but no one, from top to bottom, is able to make that dream into a reality.
Mikael Håfström doesn’t lack ambition from the director’s chair, but his skill sets are far more suitable for smaller genre fare than a big scaled project like this one. Amini’s script is paper thin and mostly uninterested in its own mystery, but a better filmmaker might have been able to cover that up. Instead, Håfström has some admittedly strong cinematography from Benoît Delhomme and an overly oppressive score from Klaus Badelt as his tools, and that’s just not enough. He cast the film well, but Shanghai gives them nothing to do. Mixed with the languid pacing and a refusal to really deal with the politics of the time, the flick was probably always destined to disappoint.
When you get right down to it, Shanghai isn’t a bad movie, it’s just a pretty bland and mediocre one. Again, this could have been a grand scaled Oscar vehicle for Cusack and company, but it was not to be. In no way is this film the sort of thing that deserved a half decade on the shelf, but it’s also the type of flick that’s pretty clearly going to be instantly forgotten. If you were as curious about this one as I was, perhaps it’s worth a rental at some point, but by and large Shanghai is something you can safely ignore.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!