Shanghai Surprise

CIN Shanghai Surprise by krin.jpg

Date Aired
August 6th, 2014
Running Time
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Clips from Desperately Seeking Susan

Todd (VO): With one decently successful movie under her belt, Madonna decided it was time to take a leading role—one where she wasn't basically just playing herself.

Todd: Her first star vehicle was...

Beginning of...

Todd (VO): ...a film noirish action-adventure set in 1930s China called Shanghai Surprise.

Todd: The surprise was that it sucked. A lot.

Cinemadonna intro

Todd (VO): Shanghai Surprise was...

Todd: ...the Gigli of 1986.

Todd (VO): A star vehicle for a ludicrously overexposed celebrity couple that the public rejected en masse. The couple in this case was Madonna and her then-husband Sean Penn, who was in the middle of the [picture of Sean Penn punching a photographer] violent psychopath phase of his life. And it would earn Madonna the first of many, many Razzies.

Todd: It is Exhibit A in the theory that no one actually wants to see real-life couples onscreen. [Brief still shot of Todd and The Nostalgia Chick] Ahem.

Todd (VO): Well, anyway, I'm not gonna call it one of the worst movies I've ever seen, but...yeah, it's a real turd. The very idea of casting Madonna as a lead in an action-adventure seems outright ludicrous in hindsight, but of course we didn't know this at the time. The plot of the movie is one of those Maltese Falcon, everybody trying to find the MacGuffin dealies

Mr. Burns (Paul Freeman): All you have to do is to make a few inquiries for us.
Glendon Wasey (Sean Penn): Yeah? Why me?
Gloria Tatlock (Madonna): You speak Chinese with such flair.

Todd (VO): Madonna hires lovable rogue fortune-seeker Sean Penn to help her find Faraday's flowers, which is this big ol' shipment of smuggled opium that got misplaced when the Japs tried to invade a year earlier. Faraday, played by Belloq from Raiders, was trying to sneak it past the authorities in the chaos, but he got caught. [Mei Gan (Kay Tong Lim) menacingly walks in] "Well, you see there is nothing you possess that I cannot take away! How do you like it, jerk?" Faraday gets gunned down trying to make his escape, but not before this happened when they tried to search his belt.

Walter Faraday (Paul Freeman): Run like hell!
[Mei Gan opens the belt, which explodes, blowing off his hands. "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down" plays over the action.]

Todd (VO): This, we find out later, is the "Shanghai Surprise" of the title. It's not a major plot point, so it's kinda stupid to name the movie after it, but apparently, these babies are selling like hotcakes.

Joe Go (Clyde Kusatsu): Very hot item. Joe Go call it Shanghai Surprise.

Todd (VO): Yeah, everybody walked around with booby-traps in their belts. Seems like a good way to become a suicide bomber by accident, but hey, what do I know? Anyway, that's what Madonna wants Sean to help her find.

Glendon: You're looking for Faraday's flowers.
Gloria: Heard of them?
Glendon: I've also heard of El Dorado and the Lost Dutchman Mine, but they don't exist either. You're crazy, you know that?

Todd (VO): Yeah, all that happened a year ago, and it's already a mythical lost treasure. Sure.

Todd: The first problem is, both Sean and Madonna are horribly miscast.

Mr. Burns: Sir, can we be of any assistance?
Glendon: Yeah, you got a torpedo handy?

Todd (VO): Sean plays this two-fisted, hard-drinking adventurer type, and it doesn't really remind me of Harrison Ford so much. It does remind me he [National Enquirer cover featuring...] drunkenly used his two fists on Madonna back in the '80s, making this a little hard to watch in hindsight, but you know, hey, whatever.

Todd: Now, Sean Penn is one of the great living actors, but [brief clip from Mystic River] mostly for his dramatic intensity.

Todd (VO): Roguish charm is not a card in his deck.

Glendon: How'd you like to come in the shadows with me and have a peek, baby?

Todd (VO): So basically, what you get is Sean trying and failing [still shot from Big Trouble in Little China featuring...] to be Kurt Russell.

Glendon: Why does everybody get their peckers in a vise when you mention Wu Ch'En She?

Todd (VO): Call this movie Big Trouble in Actual China, I guess. But that's nowhere near as bad as casting Madonna as, no joke, a missionary.

Gloria: You're flippant, facetious and, I suspect, sorely lacking in moral fiber.

Todd (VO): An uptight, prudish, bleeding-heart missionary.

Glendon: Loan me ten cents, ma'am, will you? I'm dry as a bone.
Gloria: Absolutely not, I do not approve of drinking.

Todd (VO): To put it lightly, this role is a little beyond Madonna's range. In every scene, she acts like Madonna, she talks like Madonna, and she looks like Madonna. Yeah, I've never seen a missionary wear that much hairspray and makeup, but hey, what do I know?

Gloria: It's degrading to use your fellow man as a beast of burden.

Todd (VO): She is so goddamn bad that I legitimately expected to find out her character was only pretending to be a missionary the whole time, and that's only partly Madonna's fault. I expected the swerve mostly because her motivation makes no goddamn sense.

Gloria: At this very moment, tens of thousands of soldiers are suffering pain because of a shortage of morphine.

Todd (VO): You got that?

Todd: She runs a veterans' hospital, and she wants to find the opium so that she can use it for medical purposes.

Todd (VO): I have no idea how scarce morphine was during the Sino-Japanese War, but there had to be an easier way to get it than searching for a mythical lost shipment of illegal drugs.

Todd: This is like hunting down the [picture of...] Ark of the Covenant because you [...wedged against a door] need a doorstop.

Todd (VO): And look, it's a shipment of drugs that's probably worth a fortune. You wouldn't think it'd be hard to understand why everyone would be looking at it. But I couldn't make sense of any of the dozens of characters or their motivations. There's a fat guy, a concubine of some sort, a poor man's Peter Lorre.

Glendon: I mean, who is this guy?! What does he want?!

Todd (VO): That's a good question, Sean; I have no idea. Oh, and I forgot to mention. The Chinese guy from the first scene, who has since become the world's lamest Bond villain, No Hands! [Mei Gan turns around revealing porcelain hands. Todd sings in the style of a Bond theme...] No Hands. He's the man who's got...

Todd: ...giant, stupid, porcelain...

Todd (VO): ...prosthetic hands that look hysterical in every scene. He could at least put some gloves on those things, Jesus. He never uses them to give anyone a hard porcelain pimp slap like I expected him to, but...he does this.

Mei Gan sticks his hand out for Glendon to shake. When Glendon gives his hand, Mei Gan starts crushing it between his hands for six seconds. Glendon just winces in pain.

Todd: [uh...] Ow?

Austin Powers: [dubbed over] That really hurt! I'm gonna have a lump there, you idiot!

Todd: Around the midway point, the movie becomes such a...

Todd (VO): ...colossal clusterfuck that by the end of it, I had no idea what was going on. There's a guy who wants to sell Madonna insurance policies for her armpits. Seriously? And then he dumps them in a vat of fish. And at some point, it turns out the opium was actually jewels?

Mr. Burns: I can't believe that Faraday's flowers was merely a bunch of jewels.

Todd: Look, don't ask me. I didn't follow this movie at all, so let me just share some of my favorite scenes.

Todd (VO): Okay, they meet this guy who's, like, this American culture fanboy, like a weeaboo in reverse. So in exchange for some information, Sean Penn offers to teach him a new baseball pitch. Yeah, better than the fastball, the curveball, or the screwball, it's the...

Todd: ...poorly animated green-screen ball.

Todd (VO): [with stereotypical accent] "Oh, you must teach me your American ways of bad special effects." Or here's this one. Sean Penn wants to bail on the whole stupid operation, so Madonna cleverly finds a way to obligate him to stay.

Glendon: [as Gloria undresses in front of him] No, you're not thinking... You're bluffing, Miss Tetlock.
Gloria: I'm merely placing you under the obligation to continue helping me.

Todd (VO): Yes, that's right. She's going to get him in the missionary position, so to speak.

[Gloria places his hand on her chest, then cut to them rolling in the sheets]
Glendon: I'm obligated, I'm obligated!

Todd: Oh, to count the ways this does not make sense.

Todd (VO): Okay, first off, how do you manage to take the sex goddess of my lifetime, give her a love scene with the actual man she loves, and have it be that unhot? That was the most clinically detached striptease I've ever seen. She is still a Christian missionary in the '30s, right? Where the hell did this streak of wanton trollopness come from? I mean, she's not even reluctant about it, she's just like, "well, time to take my clothes off."

To be fair, they do hint she's got some kind of bad girl past, but it's not like she was faking the uptightness, and she never really defrosts towards him or anything. And for another thing, how is him getting laid gonna make him feel obligated? Maybe she really is new to this sex thing, 'cause, as ancient Chinese proverb say, "why buy cow when milk free?" Oh, and look how guilt-ridden she is afterwards.

Gloria: I just blackmailed you shamelessly.

Todd: Okay, 1., no, you didn't.

Todd (VO): If that was blackmail, please extort me for all I'm worth. 2., Where the hell is all this regret coming from? It's not like she recklessly jumped into bed with him in a moment of desperation. Or maybe she did; I can't tell 'cause Madonna's such a bad actress. 3.,...

Todd: ...What did you need this guy for again?

Todd (VO): He's got no noteworthy skills, no inside information, all he's done is drink, scream, and smell bad. I will say this, for as bad as this movie is, it's actually a lot less racist than I feared it'd be. I mean, there are a few questionable characters, some lines of dialogue.

Ho Chong (Victor Wong): Your twin pagodas, maybe?
Gloria: No, definitely not.
Ho Chong: Surely you wish to protect your haven of celestial bliss?

Todd (VO): Oh, and there's bad, stereotypical Chinese music everywhere. A lot of it comes from the film's producer and former Beatle, George Harrison. [Picture of Harrison with Ravi Shankar] George, of course, was famously into Eastern culture, but apparently not that far to the east because...ugh, some of the lines in this.

Opening credits with "Shanghai Surprise" playing
George: My straits are dire from the, the wok into the fire
I'd like to trust you, but I've broken my rickshaw

Todd (VO): Yeah, pretty much all the music is like that. They're so shameless, they even include a snippet of "Chopsticks".

[Two wicker trunks start moving as bad rendition of "Chopsticks" plays.]
Glendon: [from inside] Hey, maybe I can knock it free.
[One moves to the other, seemingly humping it.]
(NO CONTEXT. Just enjoy)

Todd (VO): To be clear here, [clip of...] you are not watching an episode of Fraggle Rock. This is an actual, A-list theatrical movie.

China Doll (Sonserai Lee): Why should my jewels be used to buy the opium drug instead of guns?
Gloria: Guns cause pain. Opium eases pain.

Todd (VO): "Opium has caused nothing but good in the world." Anyway, it climaxes with all the characters in one spot trying to get the opium...or the jewels...the launch codes, I don't know, whatever the MacGuffin is right now.

Mei Gan: You open it.

Todd (VO): Oh, and of course No Hands is smart 'cause he's not gonna fall for the ol' Shanghai Surprise trick again, except he is.

Glendon: [running off with Gloria] Come on!
[Joe Go ducks his head as the Shanghai Surprise explodes. Once again, "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down" plays.]

Todd: Apparently, at some point, Sean Penn invented the delayed-fuse Shanghai Surprise; they're not gonna explain that.

Todd (VO): And Madonna's boss was Belloq the entire time, and the jewels were fake, but the opium was real...look, I don't know. The whole thing's a mess. But yeah, they lived happily ever after. Or at least they will until [cover of People showing...] Sean loses his goddamn mind.

Todd: So yeah, that was Shanghai Surprise, and it was terrible.

Todd (VO): Sean Penn refuses to talk about it to this day and hasn't tried to make a fun movie ever since. Madonna, meanwhile, learned nothing from the experience and kept trying to act, and we'll get to more of that shortly.

Todd: But before we go forward, we're gonna have to go backwards here. Now, you've seen how bad she is with Hollywood talent and budget behind her. Just imagine how bad the movies were before she had that.

Captioned with "next time", the opening of A Certain Sacrifice.

Closing tag song: George Harrison - "Shanghai Surprise"

"Shanghai Surprise" is owned by Handmade Films
This video is owned by me

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