Shanghai Surprise

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Shanghai Surprise
Shanghai surprise poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jim Goddard
Produced by John Kohn
George Harrison
Written by John Kohn
Robert Bentley
Based on Faraday's Flowers novel by Tony Kenrick
Music by George Harrison
Michael Kamen
Cinematography Ernie Vincze
Edited by Ralph Sheldon
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
29 August 1986
Running time
97 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $17 million
Box office $2,315,683 (USA)

Shanghai Surprise is a 1986 British adventure comedy film directed by Jim Goddard and starring then-newlyweds Sean Penn and Madonna. It was produced by George Harrison's HandMade Films and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Harrison himself appeared as a night club singer, and also recorded several songs for the film's soundtrack, including the song "Breath Away from Heaven", which was re-recorded and released on his album Cloud Nine along with the song "Someplace Else", also used in the film.

The soundtrack for Shanghai Surprise was never released as a record or CD, and was only briefly available as a promotional single featuring the title song "Shanghai Surprise" coupled with "Zig Zag".[1] Both of these songs have since been released as "additional tracks" on the 2004 release of the Cloud Nine CD. Another track, "The Hottest Gong in Town", was included on the EP Songs by George Harrison Volume 2. The screenplay was adapted by John Kohn and Robert Bentley from Tony Kenrick's 1978 novel Faraday's Flowers. The book was reprinted (under the film's title and with a film-centric cover) as a piece of tie-in merchandise for the film.

Plot summary[edit]

Glendon Wasey (Sean Penn) is a sleazy, down-on-his-luck con man struggling to sell glow-in-the-dark neckties in Shanghai. When he encounters the lovely Gloria Tatlock (Madonna), a missionary nurse who wants to obtain a supply of opium to ease the suffering of her patients, he decides to help her get hold of a stolen supply of the valuable drug. The only problem is that a lot of other people want to secure the stolen opium as well—gangsters, smugglers, thugs and a host of dangerous lowlifes.



The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in October, 1986, "The movie opened so poorly in its first wave of playdates (late August in the Northeast and Midwest) that MGM has made severe cuts in its marketing budget. One MGM exec was quoted in the trades as saying this was necessary because 'the interest in the film has been non-existent.'"[2]

Critical reception[edit]

The film received overwhelming negative reviews. Bill Cosford of The Miami Herald, granting it 1 star out of 4, wrote, "In Shanghai Surprise, as you may have heard, almost everything is just a bit off. Though widely anticipated as a musical, Shanghai Surprise is actually a kind of miniaturization of Raiders of the Lost Ark/Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with a feisty heroine (Madonna) in the vain [sic] of Rita Hayworth in "The Lady From Shanghai," and a roguish adventure hero (Sean Penn) as well as a pop-sprinkled score (partly the work of George Harrison)... There's a plot here, involving Madonna's quest to find a load of hijacked opium for conversion to morphine to help the troops fighting the Japanese. Penn, though he spends his big scene panting in a brothel, will save the day. But the film was conceived and executed as a star vehicle. Wrong stars, wrong roles, not much happening here. And for George Harrison and his Handmade Films, the first big bust."[3]

The Philadelphia Inquirer also gave it only 1 star: "Shanghai Surprise is so dismally scripted and directed that no one could redeem it... an atmospheric, handsomely shot and, sadly, utterly empty piece of work."[4] The Lexington Herald-Leader called it "a turkey": "This film is bad. The acting is terrible. The hackneyed screenplay traffics in stereotype and yuk-yuk jokes. And the point is non-existent."[5] The San Diego Union said, "In its campy nostalgia for old adventure films, Shanghai Surprise is cloddish. There's something rotten at the core about a movie that would recycle lines like "That's mighty white of you." Even sadder is the realization that some of the old cornball movies are still fresher, more alive, than this regurgitation."[6]

The Philadelphia Daily News faulted the casting as well as the script: "The ever-important spirit is missing as Mr. and Mrs. Penn wrestle with old gags that are beyond their ken. It's not entirely their fault though: They've been given no characters to play. Much of Shanghai Surprise might have worked if they at least were permitted to play themselves — a punk rocker and punk actor at large in an alien movie world."[7] The Chicago Sun-Times, awarding the movie half a star, complained of its "warped attitudes toward women," adding, "It's hard to know for whom this wretch of a film was made. Idiotic dialogue should turn off the adults, teens will be disappointed by their rock heroine and kids shouldn't even be watching."[8] Film professor Michal Conford, of Ryerson University, reviewed the film for the San Jose Mercury News with another half-star rating, saying sardonically, "Shanghai Surprise stars Madonna and Sean Penn together for the first time and has songs by George Harrison. That is the most positive sentence that can be written about the film, now playing locally. MGM must have suspected -- the company tried to open the film in places like Iowa to avoid getting slaughtered. Nice try... The film is supposed to be a shaggy dog adventure... Shaggy, no. Dog, yes."[9]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Won: Worst Actress - Madonna
Nominated: Worst Picture
Nominated: Worst Director - Jim Goddard
Nominated: Worst Screenplay - John Kohn and Robert Bentley
Nominated: Worst Original Song - "Shanghai Surprise"
Nominated: Worst Actor - Sean Penn
Nominated: Worst Picture[10]


  1. ^ Booklet included with Cloud Nine CD, released 2004.
  2. ^ Ringel, Eleanor (21 October 1986). "Sean Penn, Madonna flop in Shanghai Surprise". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. p. B/3. 
  3. ^ Cosford, Bill (20 October 1986). "This Surprise is Bad News". The Miami Herald. p. 4C. 
  4. ^ Rickey, Carrie (19 September 1986). "Madonna Plays a Missionary, Sean Penn Sells Ties as They Pursue Opium and Each Other in Shanghai Surprise". The Philadelphia Inquirer. p. 8. 
  5. ^ Roberts, Michael (4 September 1986). "Shanghai's Surprise is that it's so bad". Lexington Herald-Leader. p. D5. 
  6. ^ Elliott, David (22 September 1986). "Shanghai isn't worth the trip". San Diego Union. p. D-1. 
  7. ^ Baltake, Joe (19 September 1986). "Laughing with the Penns in China". Philadelphia Daily News. p. 59. 
  8. ^ Voedisch, Lynn (1 September 1986). "Even Madonna can't save Shanghai". Chicago Sun-Times. p. 22. 
  9. ^ Conford, Michal (20 September 1986). "Shanghai Surprise Doesn't". San Jose Mercury News. p. 1C. 
  10. ^ "1986 9th Hastings Bad Cinema Society Stinkers Awards". Stinkers Bad Movie Awards. Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 17 October 2006. Retrieved 2 April 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Parish, James Robert (2006). Fiasco — A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 359 pages. ISBN 978-0-471-69159-4. 

External links[edit]