Jan 25, 2016
Shanghai Surprise (1986) (part 10 of 11)
Cut to Sean and Madonna on a boat, and Sean is rowing them back to the docks. Meanwhile, Mei Gan spies on them from afar through binoculars. And now that we see China Doll’s lair in the daylight, it appears that she does in fact live on what looks like a huge pirate ship. That must be a fun place to live. And I mean fun as in, having a race car for a bed kind of fun.
As soon as they’re back on land, Sean and Madonna are suddenly swarmed by police, on foot and on motorcycles. Sean wants to give himself up, perhaps hoping he’ll be escorted out of this movie, but just as suddenly, a car appears. Inside are Joe Go and Odd Job, and hell, why not? Sean and Madonna leap inside, because when in doubt, go for a car chase. And it’s really, painfully obvious that the footage of them driving around the beach is seriously undercranked. I’m guessing it wasn’t that easy to get a ’30s-model car to screech around corners on sand.
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They get chased around the beach, and one Keystone Kop motorcycle ends up in the water. Then they find their path is blocked by cop cars, so for no particular reason, everybody jumps out [?] and runs back to the boat (which Madonna calls the “sampan”, which I guess is what I should have been calling it all along). Only, there’s Mei Gan, already on the sampan, waiting for them. Oops!
Well, it looks like the whole Scooby gang is now completely surrounded by cops. Mei Gan comes up to taunt Sean, and here it comes out that he and Sean had a handshake deal. This enrages Madonna. You see, Sean never intended for the jewels to be used to buy opium for suffering soldiers. Apparently, he was just using Madonna to get the jewels, so he could give them to Mei Gan. Because Sean knew full well that the persuasive power of words like “guns cause pain” hinged on Madonna’s skillful monotone.
When she learns the truth, Madonna first calls Sean a “deceitful, jelly-spined, backstabbing bastard”, and then a “prick”. Because she was completely up front and candid with Sean when she brought him into this in the first place, right? Sean quips that she didn’t learn words like that in Brookline, Massachusetts. No, Sean, she learned those kind of insults from you. She learned them from watching you! Mei Gan, my savior, puts a crushing halt to this stupid banter, and demands the jewels.
Sean reaches in his pocket… and ho ho, let the little comedy skit commence. He searches himself and can’t find the jewels, and turns to Madonna and casually asks if he gave them to her.
Mei Gan again puts a damper on the dumb hijinks. He has one of his men forcefully search Sean. The guy finally pulls out… really? It’s a big cloth belt, with many compartments. Just like the one that blew off Mei Gan’s hands in the first place. It’s the Shanghai Surprise, right here before us in the, er, cloth.
And what does the cop do? He lays the belt right across Mei Gan’s porcelain hands. It appears that one of his men either needs a touch of sensitivity training, or is gravely oblivious to recent events. You’d think if you worked at Mei Gan’s precinct, you’d be somewhat aware of why your boss has porcelain hands in the first place. But not this flunky, it seems.
Thankfully, Mei Gan is not quite as dumb a dog’s chew-toy, and makes Sean open up the belt himself. During this, there are shots of Odd Job and Joe Go backing away warily, knowing full well the power of the Shanghai Surprise.
And so Sean pulls out various sundry items, like his “little black book”, and then his membership card to the “Peking YMCA”. I think the Peking YMCA is where he fills up his little black book. And then he opens another pocket and goes, “My library card’s expired. Damn.” Well, at least a few librarians are safe from getting assaulted, at least for the time being. By the time he gets to a pair of “silk stockings”, I’ve grown completely tired of this bit.
But, would you believe, it goes on? And on? Sean is still opening pockets. I can’t believe it. Now he’s pulling out random pictures of women. Ladies and gentleman, pocket opening intrigue! And of course, there is just one last compartment for him to open. And just like in the opening scenes, Sean assures Mei Gan that the last pocket only contains mothballs. Huh. With the way he’s goading Mei Gan, it’s almost like Sean knows exactly what Faraday said in the opening scenes. Which is completely impossible.
So Sean sighs, and with a “suit yourself”, finally opens the last damn compartment. Joe Go and Odd Job hit the deck, but it turns out it actually does contain mothballs. This pocket, by the way, is where Sean will be keeping his career for the next five years. Mei Gan grabs the empty belt and examines it closely. Oh, boy. Can’t see where this is going. Not at all.
Sean gloats, telling Mei Gan he can’t get what he wants simply by “bullying” people, or pulling out fingernails. Sean calls him a “sorry, sadistic son of a bitch!” He then looks at his watch, grabs Madonna, and takes off running. And wouldn’t you know, the belt blows up anyway. Apparently, there was a pound of C-4 hidden inside the buttons and seams. Or maybe Sean invented exploding mothballs. Hey, sometimes you need to preserve your clothes for a while before blowing them to smithereens.
Stuntman flunkies go flying into the water. Sean and Madonna jump over the railing, and also land in the water. Madonna wails, “I forgot I can’t swim!” But no one will forget she can’t act.
There’s a shot of Mei Gan lying face down on the pier, smoke rising from him, and his shattered porcelain hands are in two piles nearby. Wow. So he’s going to have to get himself a new new pair of hands. The final insult! Assuming the guy’s not dead. Alas, the movie is none too clear on the matter.
Sean and Madonna quickly swim back up onto the pier. Conveniently, everybody’s been knocked out and/or killed by the blast, with the exception of Joe Go and Odd Job.
Joe is still referring to Sean as “Big Stick”, which is still disturbing. And then, everybody’s sad because the jewels got blown up, too. Aww, poor jewels. Now all the baby jewels will be orphans.
But Sean has a surprise for them: it turns out he actually hid them on the sampan. He runs to the boat and easily plucks the satchel of jewels out from under the seat, which would seem to indicate they were sitting there in plain sight. Okay, so it’s good to know über-villain Mei Gan was too dumb to even do a cursory search of the boat while he saw sitting in it doing nothing.
What’s even dumber is how this whole scene unfolded: As soon as they got off the sampan, they scrambled into Joe Go’s car, most likely hoping to make a quick getaway. Meaning, Sean would have ended up leaving the precious jewels on the boat. Which is a great plan, assuming China Doll’s lair has a Lost and Found counter. I’m guessing it doesn’t, so he’s sure lucky that things happened the way they did, because it gave him a chance to go right back to the boat and get the jewels.
Anyway, it’s big smiles all around, and Madonna asks Joe Go for a ride back to the mission. Unfortunately, Joe Go has more interesting plans in mind: He snatches the jewels and takes off running, openly declaring how great it is to steal. Madonna then gets another wonderfully mind-numbing line. Really, she actually says this:
Madonna: I do not accept this! I do not accept this!
God, do I know the feeling. Sean and Madonna chase after Joe Go and Odd Job. She catches up to Joe, knees him in the groin, and yells, “How’s that for a ball game, you little creep?”
Then Odd Job tries to tackle her, but Sean knocks him out by—and I wish I were making this up—clocking him in the head with a baseball. No, I have no idea where he got it from. And instead of being glad they got the jewels back, Sean flies into a “comical” rage. He says if he’d had that kind of “control” before, he’d “be pitching for the Yankees now, instead of selling crummy painted ties!” Sorry, but “Sean Penn” and “control” never appeared in the same sentence back in the ’80s. Unless that sentence also featured the words “out of”.
And so, our two lovebirds head on back to the mission to present the jewels to Mr. Burns. Unfortunately, there are still several lame plot threads to tie up. And so, in walks Tuttle and Fauxdrian Brody, and Tuttle is again holding a gun. Brody quickly grabs the jewels.
Suddenly, Mr. Burns breaks out into kung fu moves, and breaks out into a British accent, totally dropping the Scottish burr. He quickly subdues both Tuttle and Brody and snatches away the gun and the jewels. He takes particular delight in pounding on Tuttle, giving him a succession of backhanded slaps, saying it’s for “the time you nearly left me to drown!” Wait, that can’t be right. How do you nearly leave someone to drown? Do you edge toward the door, looking askance?
Burns then literally kicks Brody in the ass, sending both of them tumbling down the stairs. This leads Madonna to somehow realize Mr. Burns is not the man of the cloth she believed him to be. He then proceeds to whip off his wig, tear off his muttonchops, unpaste his handlebar moustache, and take a pillow out from underneath his shirt. He then reveals himself to be… Michael Jackson! No, just kidding. It’s the artist formerly known as Walter Faraday, the Opium King.
He brashly declares that a fisherman saved him, and he took “a year in Osaka” to patch himself up. So, in the middle of an all-out invasion, some hapless fisherman stopped in the middle of getting his ass the hell out of Dodge to saddle himself with a half-dead Brit? Wow, this film is really restoring my faith in human nature.
Now, I bet I know what you’re thinking. Hey, Al, you’re the Movie Recapping King! So how could you not notice that Mr. Burns was just Walter Faraday under a bad wig and makeup? Are your keen powers of observation finally failing you? Isn’t this just the whole Gene Simmons Ragnar-Carruthers thing all over again?
But bear with me. It’s not quite that simple. Apparently, up until this scene, Paul Freeman wasn’t wearing a wig or a fake moustache to play Mr. Burns. He had actually grown out his moustache and hair, and dyed them both gray. But in this scene, they pull a big switcheroo, and have a clean-shaven Paul Freeman under a bad wig, so they can pretend he was wearing it all along.
And that is the one, solitary thing in this movie that’s actually clever, because I never would have noticed in a million years. Now that I know about the switcheroo, it’s easy to see the tricks of the trade here. Like how in this scene, they have shadows falling across Burns/Faraday’s face, even though in all other scenes taking place in this room, he was well lit. But if you’re not looking for a switch, you wouldn’t notice it. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, people don’t recommend movies on the strength of stuff they don’t notice.
And so, it’s all revealed. All of this was Walter Faraday’s wild, overly complicated scheme to get the jewels back, and Sean and Madonna were his unwitting pawns. Well, Madonna is unwitting in just about everything she does, but no matter. Faraday says he picked Sean for this task because, once again, he looks like someone China Doll was once in love with. And once again, there’s absolutely no hint of who that person is/was.
[Note from the future: It seems there are clues as to who Sean resembles, but it’s so horribly bungled that it took repeat viewings to finally figure it all out. Remember when Sean and Madonna first went to the nightclub, and everybody recognized him, and people called him Phil? You probably don’t, but I’ll just pretend you do and keep going. Apparently, Sean wasn’t lying when he said he had never been to that nightclub before. It turns out he looks so much like this other guy named Phil, that people were reacting to him as if he were Phil, offering him Phil’s usual table, and Phil’s usual drink, and so forth. And I assume this “Phil” person is who China Doll was once in love with. Now, if you want more details about who Phil is or what he did or where he is now, I got nothing. And I don’t intend on watching this film twenty more times in the hopes that maybe that plot hole will suddenly make sense to me, too.]
You know, it really would take years off my life to untangle this movie’s plot. But, supposing I were an opium king trying to get some jewels back, I couldn’t see myself formulating a big master plan wherein I get a random guy off the street to go look for my former servant, and then when he finds my former servant, he gets a cryptic clue about a phoenix, which he then interprets to mean there are stolen jewels to be found, which in turn inspires him to invent a pretense about helping suffering soldiers in order to get those jewels.
If I’m understanding the sequence of events in this movie correctly, and lord knows I have a better chance of wrapping my mind around the proof to Fermat’s Last Theorem, this means all Faraday had to do was sneak onto China Doll’s pirate ship, and steal the eyes off her porcelain dolls, and that would have accomplished roughly the same thing. When it comes to caper films, there really is a fine line between an intricate puzzle to be solved, and a hopelessly nonsensical mess. As horrible as Hudson Hawk is, I think even that plot makes more sense.
Regardless, Faraday demands Sean’s ticket to Los Angeles at gunpoint. This ticket is quickly becoming like the letters of transit in Casablanca. I wonder, can a movie handle having two stupid MacGuffins? Then, for reasons I can’t even begin to imagine, he forces both Sean and Madonna to get into big person-sized wicker baskets. He begins to lock them both up inside, but before he can close the lid on Sean’s basket, Sean asks if there was ever any opium. But of course there was, Faraday fara-shadows: “And some day, some lucky sap will find it!”
He locks the lids tight and makes his escape. And here we are, at this very time and place, watching two giant picnic baskets speaking with the voices of Sean Penn and Madonna. Did the writers for Yogi Bear drop acid and then write this script? The baskets argue back and forth, and it’s like some sort of weird ventriloquism trick, without any ventriloquist in sight. We even, good lord, cut back and forth between the two baskets as they bicker. It’s like a demented puppet show.
Madonna, the lock picker extraordinaire, thinks she’s figured out a way to get her basket to open, seeing as how it’s simply a sliding bolt. She tries to push it open with a stick, but gets nowhere. Sean instructs her to “jiggle her crate” to get the lock to fall out. And then there’s a synth version of “Chopsticks” (no idea why) on the soundtrack as we watch a giant picnic basket jumping around like a Mexican bean.
And then Sean starts jiggling his crate to help out, and then, if you can believe it, we’re suddenly watching two wicker baskets do the tango. Who in the world thought this would be the least bit entertaining to other humans? Abruptly, via the magic of jump cuts, both baskets are now sliding down the stairs.
They both come to rest next to a guy with a priest’s collar, who frees Madonna. He turns out to be the real Mr. Burns, who’s been away from the mission for various reasons. I guess they should have asked the other Mr. Burns what his first name was. “I don’t know!” might have been a tip-off. I’d ask why nobody else at the mission noticed the change-up, but I’d really much rather get this over with.
Madonna frees Sean, and the whole while the Real Mr. Burns is utterly flustered at what he’s seeing. He says the church doesn’t approve of such “Eastern practices” (oh good, so both Mr. Burnses are equal dicks when it comes to the native culture), but they ignore him and quickly run out.