China, 1937, and British opportunist Walter Faraday (Paul Freeman) has a money-making method in mind to glean his fortune, but first he must negotiate dangerous territory as the Japanese are invading, but also what Chinese authorities remain are after him to prevent his schemes succeeding. After pausing to finish his meal, Faraday takes his business partner Willie Tuttle (Richard Griffiths) on a rickshaw ride through the beleaguered city of Shanghai, but it does not all got to plan when sadistic official Mei Gan (Kay Tong Lim) stops them - and their opium bulbs.
That little episode ends with Mei Gan losing his hands in a booby trapped money belt and Faraday apparently dying in a hail of bullets as he tries to swim after the ship carrying his precious cargo, with Tuttle surviving but losing the bulbs in his escape. Sounds like quite an arresting way to start a movie, doesn't it? And it is, which might have been why when newlyweds Sean Penn and Madonna showed up ten minutes in the mood changed dramatically. Now we were supposedly in romantic comedy territory, which was scuppered when firstly the jokes were not funny, and secondly the romance was not romantic.
In fact, we had to take it on trust there was any attraction between Mr and Mrs Penn at all, such was the thudding lack of chemistry. Richard Griffiths came away from this fiasco with a collection of tales concerning the bad behaviour of Sean on the set, but nobody had anything good to say about Shanghai Surprise as it turned out. Well, nobody except Madonna's fans (Penn's fans were rather more lukewarm), for she bred obsession in her followers, and they could forgive their idol anything, even a series of cardboard performances in consistently underwhelming movies. Here we were intended to find her loveable, which was sabotaged when she simply came across as whiny.
She played a missionary (no, really) who wants to get her hands on those bulbs (oo-er missus, etc) so they can be turned into morphine to help with the disadvantaged, but everyone else wants them simply because of the amount of cash they will provide. There follows a shapeless assembly of scenes where it seems like something is happening, yet if you stop and think you realise there's a hell of a lot of marking time as when this resolved its plot it amounted to very little that could not have been wrapped up in about ten minutes. But there was a determination to offer the audience some local colour so Oriental actors would pop up every so often to either supply comic relief, or the in the case of Mei Gan, some sinister threat.
He was notable for losing his hands in the opening sequence, so he spends the rest of the movie with what look like porcelain replacements, with a, er, handy gap between a forefinger and middle finger where he can place a cigarette, although quite how he lights it is a mystery. A few more quirks like that and you might have had something vaguely interesting, but Shanghai Surprise tended to drone on through its setpieces, barely engaging the audience; that said, it could have received this lousy reception thanks to the public losing patience with a never out of the headlines celebrity couple, but even at this remove it doesn't exactly come up smelling of roses. And besides, it was the concoction of Handmade Films, something Beatle George Harrison had placed a lot of faith in (he wrote the music for it), and he wasn't exactly unpopular; nevetheless, the failure of this helped to sink his once-promising movie company, another reason not to warm to it.