Cast: John Cusack, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Despite its attractive cast and epic feel, World War II drama Shanghai is too simplistic for a nail-biting political thriller, and too conventional for a satisfying romantic saga.
Set in 1941, American spy Paul Soames (played by John Cusack) arrives in Shanghai posing as a journalist, hoping to investigate the murder of his best friend and fellow agent, Connor (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). To get to the bottom of the truth, Paul befriends a local gangster Anthony Lan-Ting (played by Chow Yun-Fat), who is close to the Japanese occupiers and who might himself be a collaborator in Connor's murder. Paul also finds himself smitten by Anthony's mysterious wife Anna (played by Gong Li), who's secretly working for the Chinese resistance.
The film is lusciously photographed, and has elegant production design that doesn't betray the fact that most of the filming was done on constructed sets in Thailand, and not in China. There's a mood of genuine tension in the air, as Paul noseys around searching for clues that land him directly in the orbit of a Japanese security captain (played by Ken Watanabe), whose drugged-out mistress may hold the secret to Connor's murder.
On paper, Shanghai may have all the makings of an old-fashioned wartime spy thriller, but unfortunately the screenplay lacks the originality that was required to turn this into something more than a rehash. The plot unfolds leisurely and appears too muddled to fully comprehend, but when it does unravel itself you realize in fact that it's ridiculously simplistic for this kind of sweeping saga.
The cast is solid, but John Cusack and Gong Li have no real chemistry and it's hard to root for them. Ken Watanabe, meanwhile, is excellent as the mysterious Japanese captain whose motives are hard to figure out.
If the film fails to work as a Casablanca-style epic, blame it on the pointlessly confusing narrative and the paper-thin characterization of the central players. It's not a bad film, but one that tests your patience. I'm going with two-and-a-half out of five for Shanghai. Watch it when you're in a forgiving mood!
Rating: 2.5 / 5
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