The decidedly retro World War II era melodrama Shanghai is a throwback in every sense of the word. Not only is its aesthetic firmly placed in the 1940s, it almost feels like it could have been made in 1990s Hollywood, when "Greatest Generation"-type nostalgic films like The Rocketeer were made. It's also a throwback considering its release. Shot in 2008, the film premiered in China in 2010. Finally, it is making an appearance in the United States, but after all this time, this epic war melodrama feels a bit stale.
John Cusack stars as Paul Soames, an American secret agent posing as a journalist in 1941 Shanghai, just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. He followed his best bud and fellow spy, Connor (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), there, only to find his pal shot dead in the street, and a murder mystery involving Connor's opium junkie girlfriend and a Japanese general (Ken Watanabe). Paul also finds himself hopelessly entangled with Anna (Gong Li), the gambling wife of a local gangster (Chow Yun Fat), who secretly works for the Chinese resistance while her husband enjoys a mutually beneficial relationship with their Japanese occupiers.
Cusack puts in work as Paul, an old-fashioned hero. But he seems miscast, and can't quite modulate the levels of camp in his performance. He sometimes pulls off the debonair spy thing, but often tips over into near parody of the genre in his acting style. Cusack is halfway between Bogart and Jimmy Stewart, and the result doesn't come together.
The story is also convoluted and filled with extraneous characters who get picked up and dropped along the way — Franka Potente as a Nazi wife with whom Paul enjoys an occasional liaison; Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville as Paul's newspaper editor who isn't a fan of his pro-Axis propaganda. It's not until the last third of the film that the spine of the story becomes clear, as Paul closes in on his friend's murderer — though really, he knew who was responsible all along.
For a film with the name of the city in its title, it doesn't feel very Shanghai at all. Due to restricted permits, it was shot in England on a soundstage, and while the production design is rich, it feels like a set, not authentic in any way. Instead of transporting the audience to 1940s China, it feels very much like any other 1940s American-style film, with nightclubs, casinos, femmes fatales and more. The action itself is so clunky, and the characterizations of the evil Japanese and Nazi forces so cartoonish, that it almost feels like a self-reflective nod to that old-school style.
Gong Li is radiant as Anna, and the triangle between her, Paul and her husband Anthony — the most graceful gangster ever, thanks to the inimitable elan of Chow Yun-Fat — proves to be the most interesting thing in the film. The film, directed by Mikael Hafstrom and written by Hossein Amini, is clearly trying to enshrine this difficult but gilded time in Chinese history. The overwrought but ultimately dull story detracts from those themes, despite the best efforts from all involved.