Movie Review: Shanghai

Splash a little film noir, a dash of spicy Asian setting, political intrigue and a lovesick journalist and you have all the ingredients for a very intriguing thriller.

Based on an original screenplay by Hossein Amini, Shanghai begins in the early 40s Shanghai as American journalist Paul Soames (John Cusack) arrives for his latest assignment.

Upon his arrival, he discovers that his best friend (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has been murdered after investigating a notorious gangster Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-Fat).

Soames makes it his mission to uncover what happened to his friend but as he gets closer to the truth he also gets closer to Lan-Ting’s wife (Gong Li) and this sets off a chain of events that will change his life forever.

Hossein Amini’s track record for original screenplays dates back to Oscar nomination ‘Wings of a Dove’. Since then he has had sporadic screenplays until Shanghai.

But Amini is very busy now. He wrote the interesting 2011 film Drive and has wrote screenplays for both 2012’s 47 Ronin and Snow White and the Huntsman. The man is a gifted storyteller and this comes to the surface with Shanghai. It is an homage to film noir and the language and characters are beautiful crafted. But he’s no Robert Towne.

The film is directed by Swedish filmmaker Mikael Hafstrom who has a gifted eye for film but he has a resume of forgettable films such as 1408, The Rite and Derailed. The guys knows how to block a scene and his lighting is incredible. But you need a director who isn’t afraid to work outside the box like Roman Polanski. Hafstrom excess blood spraying in some scenes could maybe be a nod to Polanski but its hard to tell.

The movie’s story drifts the more John Cusack’s character is gets involved in the lush world of Shanghai. The layers of intrigue are all over the place in the film. But we never get a real sense of what is actually going on. Yes there is the film’s main plot but it just isn’t as juicy as it should be.

Cusack gives a credible performance but he just doesn’t project the unstable kind of character he should be. I mean the guy sleeps with married women, thinks himself a detective and supposed to be able to out smart Naval Intelligence and the Shanghai Underground. I like Cusack just not in a conflicted role like this.

Gong Li (right) is stunning as the femme fatale and in some scenes she even out acts Cusack. Chow Yun-Fat and Ken Watanabe are two of Asia’s finest actors working right now and they are both quite good here. Just wish the movie was about them than Cusack. Franka Potente and Jeffrey Dean Morgan play just throwaway characters.

The movie wants desperately to be Chinatown in the Far East but just never gets there.

3.5 out of 5

So Says the Soothsayer

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