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2010 | 107 min | R | 2.39:1



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Shanghai Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, January 11, 2012

It’s easier to admire “Shanghai” than it is to enjoy it. A period mystery of debatable allure, the picture is best appreciated for its visual mastery, displaying stunning set design and elaborate noir-flavored cinematography. The movie is a feast for the eyes, yet the thrill of craftsmanship doesn’t carry over to the screenplay, which labors through a tepid puzzle of international allegiances, romantic interest, and wartime chaos. The feature certainly isn’t lazy, but it’s not a good sign to walk away from “Shanghai” more hypnotized by its assembly than its narrative rumble.

In 1941, American journalist and spy Paul Soames (John Cusack) has come to Shanghai to examine growing Japanese interests in a Chinese city, finding members of numerous nations taking up residence there on the eve of WWII. Learning of the murder of friend and colleague Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Paul jumps into thick of intrigue to help uncover the killer. Romancing German wives (Franka Potente) and dueling with Japanese officials (Ken Watanabe), Paul gathers clues concerning a major naval event on the horizon. However, his attention is diverted by Anna (Gong Li), the wife of influential figure Anthony (Chow Yun Fat), drawn to her beauty and connection to mysterious events involving a burgeoning resistance movement. Putting his own life on the line, Paul begins to aid Anna’s endeavors, inching closer to a potential suspect (Rinko Kikuchi) as the city erupts into panic.

Scripted by Hossein Amini (“The Wings of the Dove,” “Drive”), “Shanghai” is molded in the film noir tradition, with the movie’s primary interests holding to Paul’s investigation of Conner’s murder, using his journalistic bravado to question members of the community and piece together a pile of clues. It’s a story better with mood than revelation, placing viewers in the middle of a glamorous city caught up in concentrated global interests, with Germans, Japanese, and Americans filling the nightclubs, restaurants, and streets while the Chinese watch carefully, fearing political upheaval on the horizon. Amini’s script enjoys flirting with historical significance and foreshadowing iconic WWII events, arranging a healthy amount of characters to complicate Paul’s exploration, each with their own damaging secrets and commitments to decode.

Director Mikael Hafstrom (“1408,” “The Rite”) delivers only moderately on the excitement factor of “Shanghai,” erecting an unconvincing mystery that sluggishly moves along, ruined in part by an absurd flash-forward opening that reveals Paul’s bloodied condition in the final act. There’s a lot of business to attend to in this story, but very little of it remains compelling, carrying an almost perfunctory quality that’s serves up plot twists and double-crosses without verve. To butter up the experience, Hafstrom orders numerous shootouts and a beheading to usher in a visceral edge, yet the bursts of violence are sporadic, quickly returning to Paul’s tightly tuxedoed, quick-witted probing of local interests. The cast is capably impassioned, striving to make themselves understood in a feature of enigmatic motives, but they’re working uphill with a script and direction that can’t secure the urgency of the piece. John Woo seems a filmmaker with a fitting eye for period pageantry and epic scope to capture the tale’s density, perhaps able to infuse a little more zip to the brutality as well. There are one too many moments where Hafstrom seems out of his league.

When the drama runs out of gas, there remains an entire world to devour in “Shanghai,” which utilizes enormous sets and hundreds of extras to capture life in the city. The details are tremendous, creating a stylized recreation of the locale, with extra attention paid to striking costuming and even lit matches, which burn with a barely controllable flame, symbolizing the ambiance of the metropolis. Cinematography by Benoit Delhomme is exceptional, smoothly transitioning between noir speeds and mournful reflection, also goosing a minor play of sensuality that ignites a few scenes between Paul and Anna (as expected, it’s impossible to keep from staring at the luminous Gong Li). The technical achievements of the picture are numerous, making “Shanghai” painless to watch. It’s maintaining interest in the eroding mystery and its passive players that’s a significant challenge.

Starring: John Cusack, Li Gong, Yun-Fat Chow
Director: Mikael Håfström

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