WWII spy thriller Shanghai hasn’t aged well in the five years it has languished unreleased by U.S. distributors the Weinstein Company. But its problems aren’t new. Director Mikael Håfström (Escape Plan, 1408) does nothing to perk up Hossein Amini’s dull scenario, so the film often feels like a drab collection of scenes where John Cusack disinterestedly questions attractive, elusive Asian cast members.
Cusack plays Paul Soames, an American journalist who visits Shanghai in 1941 to investigate the murder of best friend Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Paul seeks answers from desperate informer Kita (Benedict Wong), powerful gangster Anthony (Chow Yun-fat), and Anthony’s duplicitous wife, Anna (Gong Li). But there’s little urgency to these informal interviews, even after Paul witnesses Japanese soldiers wantonly and routinely murdering Chinese citizens.
Cusack’s low-simmering performance keeps the drama at a tediously low boil. He always looks slightly distracted, making it impossible to believe that Paul is emotionally invested in the Shanghai natives he’s ostensibly become enchanted by.
Håfström’s direction is similarly uninvolving. This is especially obvious in a flat-footed sequence where Anthony bluntly suggests he knows Anna is up to something when he tells her that Japanese ally Tanaka (Ken Watanabe) suspects there’s a mole in Anthony’s organization — all while Anna impassively cuts Anthony’s meat for him. Chow’s line-reading is stiff, as is Håfström’s visually disengaged presentation of Chow and Gong. You won’t remember the expressions on characters’ faces when they flirt with death (and each other).
Directed by Mikael Håfström
The Weinstein Company
Opens October 2, Village East Cinema
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 29, 2015