|'strikes the kind of knock-a-long Bond-imitation tone so beloved of mainstream spy dramas in search of an audience'|
An interesting oddity, the likes of which populate John Cusack's screen career like blood spots on white flowers, 2010's Shanghai is still sitting on a shelf as far as its US distribution is concerned and, here in the UK, finds itself pushed out with no publicity on to home markets. For a film that cost somewhere in the region of $50 million to make, that's something of a concern as to the quality on offer.
The first clue that Shanghai actually isn't all bad can be found by trawling the international box office figures, rejecting the wrongly held notion that only the US market matters. Shanghai made the equivalent of $7.3 million in China and another $1.5 million in South Korea. Fine, these aren't mega numbers, and the film is nowhere near the break even point, but it found small markets in some places and did at least OK out of them.
Directed by Mikael Håfström, who had a better box office time with The Rite, released the year after this was made, the film strikes the kind of knock-a-long Bond-imitation tone so beloved of mainstream spy dramas in search of an audience. It's a decent fit with the 1940s war time China setting for the most part but any time the action ramps up the violence levels (this is a 15 certificate) it starts to jar, just like Bond would with accentuated blood splatter from every gun shot. The pop-ish retro visuals start to look a little cheap next to modern-level action violence.
Other than Bond there is an interesting comparison to be made with 2002's The Quiet American, which went for the much harsher tone carried by its source material, a Graham Greene novel. Where, in that film, Brendan Fraser and Michael Caine vied for the love of a Vietnamese woman during war time, here Cusack fights on several fronts for (or against) his lovers (Li Gong and Franka Potente), their partners (who include Chow Yun-Fat) and a shady chief of security (Ken Watanabe), all the while trying to find out how the death of his friend (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is wrapped up in the muddle of all the adultery and the looming spectre of World War Two. If that sounds like a fantastic cast then throw in too David Morse, brilliantly underplaying as Cusack's conflicted boss, who just wants to keep a lid on everything.
The plotting takes effort to keep up with and at least one less character could have done this wonders. In all the diaspora above, Cusack also has the unenviable task of inhabiting a character who's cover is one of a Nazi sympathiser but who's actual job is that of a US Naval Intelligence agent. Occasionally, in individual scenes, his motivations get lost amongst the melee.
Possibly this links to Shanghai's main failings which, sadly, mainly lie at Håfström's feet. Like The Rite, this doesn't stand out, look particularly good, or manage to make its complicated plot abundantly slimline enough. Complicated is good. An inability to present clearly is not.