Shanghai Surprise (1986) (part 1 of 11)

The Cast of Characters:
Sean Penn as Glendon WaseyGlendon Wasey (Sean Penn). And yes, that does rhyme with “Swayze”. Sean Penn drunkenly mumbles his way through this period caper (acting about as “period” as Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai), getting wrapped up in a plot to steal opium, or maybe jewels, or maybe an autographed baseball. I honestly have no idea, and I don’t think Sean did, either.
Madonna as Gloria TatlockGloria Tatlock (Madonna). The Razzie Awards‘ honoree for Worst Actress of the 20th Century deftly plays against type as a missionary. Get it? Madonna, of all people, playing a missionary! Isn’t that hilarious? Sadly, this character description is funnier than most of the movie.
All the RestAll the Rest. Honestly, I was going to give a rundown of the other major characters, but what’s the point, really? When the movie’s over, the only people you’ll remember being in this are Sean Penn and Madonna, and possibly not even them. So thank your lucky stars.
The article continues after these advertisements...


A big Agony Booth shout-out to staff recapper Mark “Scooter” Wilson, who not only helped proofread and edit this recap, but also added some of his own quips and captions. Make sure to hover over the screencaps to see who wrote which caption!


Man, did I miss out on doing these Valentine’s Day special recaps. It’s been three years since the last one, and enough’s enough. Dammit, I gotta get back into the romantic spirit!

Out of the three movies featured here on a Valentine’s Day, I’d have to say this one features the best chemistry between its two leads. But let’s look at the competition, shall we? First we had Lily Tomlin and John Travolta, who looked and acted like mother and son (with at least one person from this memorable coupling later coming out as gay). And then we had Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, whose entire relationship now looks like a calculated effort to make two people even more unbelievably famous than they already were.

And then, there’s Sean Penn and Madonna. With their divergent career paths, it’s difficult to remember that these two actually were married at one point. (The fact that they didn’t make it to their fourth anniversary is certainly a factor.) Though their marriage was brief, one artifact remains, a shameful time capsule to be unearthed from time to time, so that future generations can be reminded of the crazy things people will do for love: One misguided little picture called Shanghai Surprise.

I think I can count the number of movies featuring real-life couples that turned out to be any good on one hand. And most of those “real-life” couples that made good movies together were having affairs. If the couple is happily (and publicly) together, it’s a guarantee the movie will stink.

I think the big problem with real-life couples making movies together is that it’s too, well, real. If I may speak in stereotypes for a moment, actors, in general, become actors so they can be other people, and hide their true selves. And pretending to make love to a stranger isn’t intimate. It isn’t personal. Because in the end, it’s all make-believe.

But having a love scene with your wife or husband? On camera? You might as well be letting the whole movie going public inside your bedroom. Which is probably why most real-life couples hold a lot back in their performances when they’re on screen together. Witness the amazing fully-clothed sex scene in Gigli.

Well, that’s not completely true. When it comes to Shanghai Surprise, one of the many films that won Madonna the Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress, I doubt she was holding back much. For one thing, she’s bared her soul (literally) in her picture book Sex and her movie Truth or Dare. For another, as an actress, she really doesn’t have much to hold back in the first place.

Caption contributed by Albert

No wonder she puts burning crosses in her videos. If God didn’t strike her down for this, she’s invulnerable.

Despite having virtually no praiseworthy roles to her credit (her career highlights being Desperately Seeking Susan and A League of Their Own—two movies where Madonna pretty much plays herself—and Evita—where she didn’t have to actually talk, and earned a Golden Globe for it), the woman simply never gave up on trying to become an actress. Despite her millions of dollars and multi-platinum records and sold-out tours and being one of the biggest selling artists in pop music history, you just know that all Madonna ever wanted to be was a movie star.

Throughout much of the ’80s and ’90s came one worthless vehicle after another, sliding from the kitschy (Who’s That Girl) to the ridiculous (Body of Evidence) to the ignored (hey, has anyone seen Dangerous Game?). Mainstream movie stardom proved to be well outside her reach, and so she moved on to appearing in low budget, annoyingly plot-challenged indie crap like The Next Best Thing and Swept Away. (The latter of which I recommend purely because it’s an hour of Madonna getting smacked around by her lover. Domestic abuse is a horrible thing, but… she did kinda have it coming.)

But now comes word that she’s given up on her dreams of being Meryl Streep in a cone-breasted bustier. Last August, she told reporters she had given up on acting, saying, “To continue to try to do films with the knowledge that everyone will just spit on them—and enjoy doing so—just doesn’t make sense to me anymore.” And so, she finally admitted her career was over, only ten years after the rest of us had already figured that out.

Of course, she still does have the odd cameo now and then. Particularly the very odd cameo she had in Die Another Day, which perfectly matched her odd (not to mention nonsensical, dreary, and monotonous) theme song. Thus making her our latest Repeat Offender.

Clearly, Madonna is giving it her all here in Shanghai Surprise. But as we’ll soon see, she doesn’t have much to give. If only I could say the same for the man she was married to at the time, the man who got dragged into helping feed her dreams of Hollywood stardom, Mr. Sean Penn.

Sean burst onto the scene as Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High—the movie was even rewritten as it was being filmed to showcase his movie-stealing performance—and early in his career he was declared one of the breakthrough stars of his generation.

But then he went and married Madonna. And much like Lee and Farrah before them, and Liz and Dick before them, and Bennifer after them, they became the subject of intense media scrutiny.

Caption contributed by Albert

Sean Penn won the coveted role after the hobo dropped out.

But neither Ben Affleck nor Richard Burton ever punched cameramen. Not even Lee Majors did that, and he could have totally destroyed their equipment with his bionic arm. But back in the mid-80s, tabloids were full of tales of an enraged, out-of-control Sean Penn physically attacking the paparazzi, to the point where he was actually arrested for battery.

Even worse for Sean, he gave off serious vibes of being less than mentally balanced, almost enough to make people sympathize with the paparazzi. After TV news helicopters circled over his 1985 wedding to Madonna, he would later admit, “I consider myself very human and very moral, and I would have been very excited to see one of those helicopters burn and the bodies inside melt.”

Penn’s out of control temper, along with his accompanying smug, self-righteous condemnation of his own chosen profession (“If there’s anything disgusting in the movie business, it is the whoredom of my peers”) threatened to destroy his entire career. After Shanghai Surprise bombed, he hosted Saturday Night Live to do damage control (giving a memorably hilarious monologue about how “a roving gang of celebrity photographers” burned down his house when he was a kid), all to no avail. For a time, he was box office poison.

Brian De Palma even wanted him to play the lead in 1989’s Casualties of War, but the studio refused to back a picture “starring” Sean Penn. And so, he ended up playing second fiddle. To Michael J. Fox, of all people.

That same year, Sean and Madonna divorced, and slowly but surely, Penn was able to bring the focus back to his work, instead of his personal life. Films like Carlito’s Way and Dead Man Walking reminded people he could act. Ever since, he’s gained a reputation as one of most versatile actors working today. He’s been nominated four times for a Best Actor Oscar, finally winning it in 2004 for Mystic River.

But it was his acceptance speech, alas, that reminded us what a prick Sean can be.

Earlier in the 77th Annual Academy Awards, host Chris Rock had made a quip asking why Jude Law was in every single movie being made at the time. During his acceptance speech, Sean took his moment in the sun to make a completely assholeish, dead-serious, missing-the-point remark wherein he reminded Rock that Jude Law was one of our finest living actors.

This wasn’t long after Penn took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post condemning the Bush administration for its “deconstruction of civil liberties”. And it also wasn’t long after Penn made a well-publicized trip to Iraq in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion.

This, of course, led to him being lampooned in Team America: World Police. In response, Penn wrote a letter to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, claiming that their film could “encourage irresponsibility that will ultimately lead to the disembowelment, mutilation, exploitation, and death of innocent people throughout the world.”

Perhaps he hasn’t changed so much since the ’80s, after all, when he and then-wife Madonna made Shanghai Surprise. One thing the two of them did have in common: Not only don’t they get the joke, they are positively offended that you suggested there was a joke in the first place.

I remember back when I was in high school, the big cinematic turkeys of the time were Leonard Part 6, Ishtar, and Shanghai Surprise. For whatever reason, Shanghai doesn’t seem to have stuck in the public consciousness like the others. Maybe it’s by virtue of the fact that Shanghai Surprise isn’t packed with pointless explosions, and didn’t cost a bajillion dollars, and thus didn’t drive any movie studios to the point of bankruptcy.

And perhaps it’s the fact that the movie feels so hollow. It’s such a big nothing. You can’t even really pick on it that much, because it’s not really trying to be anything. There are hints of Raiders of the Lost Ark (along with one of that movie’s cast members) and Big Trouble in Little China, but the movie can’t even commit to being a naked rip-off of either one of them. The movie is based on the novel Faraday’s Flowers by Tony Kenrick, and unlike most movies made from books, Shanghai Surprise was based on a book nobody had ever heard of.

Caption contributed by Mark

The original title was Raiders of the Lost Virginity.

The story, if it’s a faithful adaptation of the book (and who would know, really?) doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy or original. Mostly, it’s a generic caper film, taking place in the 1930s for no particular reason, with a poorly-defined MacGuffin, and shady underworld types who really aren’t that shady. Also, a number of plot points are taken directly from the James Bond movies, though I could easily imagine that being the handiwork of the screenwriter, and not the novelist.

Reportedly, even the film’s producers weren’t keen on the script. But one of the writers had a connection to Sean Penn, and the idea was floated to have both Sean and Madonna star in the film together. Madonna loved the idea, of course, and poor Sean went along with it for, as he would later tell his biographer, “love and money”. And simple as that, Shanghai Surprise went into production.

Ordinarily, a film like this would be in and out of theaters before anyone knew it existed. But this was a film with two high profile stars, so naturally, the bad buzz preceded the film by months, along with tales of Sean getting into altercations with photographers in Macau and Hong Kong, where much of the movie was filmed.

In the face of all the negative buzz, Sean Penn actually told a studio publicist, “This film doesn’t need publicity. The people will go to see it because we’re in it.” Right. Because who needs a good plot or strong performances? Shanghai Surprise grossed roughly $3 million in its theatrical run, and since that’s not even enough to pay off Madonna’s entourage, it’s safe to say the movie didn’t clear a profit. But hey, adjusted for inflation, that’s at least $6 million in Gigli Dollars.

Before we get going, I have to admit that I just can’t bring myself to refer to Madonna by her character’s name. In this movie, or any movie for that matter. Regardless of who she plays, she is always blank-faced, lifeless, monotone Madonna. And poor Sean Penn is like an innocent bystander in a drive-by here, brutally splattered with her lack of screen presence. But sadly, he takes a hit too, because for the purposes of this recap, I can only call him Sean.

The more I think about it, the more I’m sure this movie was made primarily so Sean and Madonna could vacation in Hong Kong. Their second honeymoon is our third-degree suffering, so let’s get on with this and see about pressing charges later.

Multi-Part Article: Shanghai Surprise (1986)

You may also like...