Shanghai Surprise is a 1986 British adventure comedy film directed by Jim Goddard and starring then-newlyweds Sean Penn and Madonna. It was produced by George Harrison's HandMade Films and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Harrison himself appeared as a night club singer, and also recorded several songs for the film's soundtrack, including the song "Breath Away from Heaven", which was re-recorded and released on his album Cloud Nine along with the song "Someplace Else", also used in the film.
The soundtrack for Shanghai Surprise was never released as a record or CD, and was only briefly available as a promotional single featuring the title song "Shanghai Surprise" coupled with "Zig Zag". Both of these songs have since been released as "additional tracks" on the 2004 release of the Cloud Nine CD. Another track, "The Hottest Gong in Town", was included on the EP Songs by George Harrison Volume 2. The screenplay was adapted by John Kohn and Robert Bentley from Tony Kenrick's 1978 novel Faraday's Flowers. The book was reprinted (under the film's title and with a film-centric cover) as a piece of tie-in merchandise for the film.
Glendon Wasey (Sean Penn) is a sleazy, down-on-his-luck con man struggling to sell glow-in-the-dark neckties in Shanghai. When he encounters the lovely Gloria Tatlock (Madonna), a missionary nurse who wants to obtain a supply of opium to ease the suffering of her patients, he decides to help her get hold of a stolen supply of the valuable drug. The only problem is that a lot of other people want to secure the stolen opium as well—gangsters, smugglers, thugs and a host of dangerous lowlifes.Sean Penn as Glendon Wasey
Madonna as Gloria Tatlock
Paul Freeman as Walter Faraday
Richard Griffiths as Willie Tuttle
Philip Sayer as Justin Kronk
Clyde Kusatsu as Joe Go
George Harrison as Night Club Singer
Victor Wong as Ho Chong
Lim Kay Tong as Mei Gan
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in October, 1986, "The movie opened so poorly in its first wave of playdates (late August in the Northeast and Midwest) that MGM has made severe cuts in its marketing budget. One MGM exec was quoted in the trades as saying this was necessary because 'the interest in the film has been non-existent.'"
The film received overwhelming negative reviews. Bill Cosford of The Miami Herald, granting it 1 star out of 4, wrote, "In Shanghai Surprise, as you may have heard, almost everything is just a bit off. Though widely anticipated as a musical, Shanghai Surprise is actually a kind of miniaturization of Raiders of the Lost Ark/Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with a feisty heroine (Madonna) in the vain [sic] of Rita Hayworth in "The Lady From Shanghai," and a roguish adventure hero (Sean Penn) as well as a pop-sprinkled score (partly the work of George Harrison)... There's a plot here, involving Madonna's quest to find a load of hijacked opium for conversion to morphine to help the troops fighting the Japanese. Penn, though he spends his big scene panting in a brothel, will save the day. But the film was conceived and executed as a star vehicle. Wrong stars, wrong roles, not much happening here. And for George Harrison and his Handmade Films, the first big bust."
The Philadelphia Inquirer also gave it only 1 star: "Shanghai Surprise is so dismally scripted and directed that no one could redeem it... an atmospheric, handsomely shot and, sadly, utterly empty piece of work." The Lexington Herald-Leader called it "a turkey": "This film is bad. The acting is terrible. The hackneyed screenplay traffics in stereotype and yuk-yuk jokes. And the point is non-existent." The San Diego Union said, "In its campy nostalgia for old adventure films, Shanghai Surprise is cloddish. There's something rotten at the core about a movie that would recycle lines like "That's mighty white of you." Even sadder is the realization that some of the old cornball movies are still fresher, more alive, than this regurgitation."
The Philadelphia Daily News faulted the casting as well as the script: "The ever-important spirit is missing as Mr. and Mrs. Penn wrestle with old gags that are beyond their ken. It's not entirely their fault though: They've been given no characters to play. Much of Shanghai Surprise might have worked if they at least were permitted to play themselves — a punk rocker and punk actor at large in an alien movie world." The Chicago Sun-Times, awarding the movie half a star, complained of its "warped attitudes toward women," adding, "It's hard to know for whom this wretch of a film was made. Idiotic dialogue should turn off the adults, teens will be disappointed by their rock heroine and kids shouldn't even be watching." Film professor Michal Conford, of Ryerson University, reviewed the film for the San Jose Mercury News with another half-star rating, saying sardonically, "Shanghai Surprise stars Madonna and Sean Penn together for the first time and has songs by George Harrison. That is the most positive sentence that can be written about the film, now playing locally. MGM must have suspected -- the company tried to open the film in places like Iowa to avoid getting slaughtered. Nice try... The film is supposed to be a shaggy dog adventure... Shaggy, no. Dog, yes."7th Golden Raspberry Awards
Worst Actress - Madonna
Worst Director - Jim Goddard
Worst Screenplay - John Kohn and Robert Bentley
Worst Original Song - "Shanghai Surprise"
Worst Actor - Sean Penn
Stinkers Bad Movie Awards