"Guns cause pain. Opium eases pain," says Madonna, the bobby-soxed missionary of "Shanghai Surprise."
That's the somewhat bewildering rationale for a lady of the cloth to be scouring Shanghai for a vast missing opium shipment. Presumably, she and her mission chums will use this cache to help the Chinese wounded in 1937 during the Japanese occupation of China.
But even better than opium for avoiding pain is avoiding "Shanghai Surprise" itself, a movie of jaw-dropping, high-water mark dreadfulness. (It's all wool and citywide.)
It's unlikely that even Carole Lombard and Clark Gable could have done anything with the absolute obtuseness of this screenplay. But additionally Sean Penn and Madonna seem not only flummoxed by its intrinsic illogic, but a decade or so too young for their roles.
Penn, in particular, looks like a grade schooler in one of those long pants suits that are supposed to make boys look like little men. Unfortunately, the little man Penn looks most like is Ratso Rizzo, not a good role model for a romantic lead.
Opium dens; quaint-speaking Chinese; rickshaw races; beauties with names like China Doll, adept at every sexual nuance: We're back in the mysterious East with a vengeance. A lot of decent character actors are sprinkled about here, Paul Freeman, the handsome Nazi-linked archeologist of "Raiders of the Lost Ark"; Victor Wong; Richard Griffiths, and Kay Tong Kim, as a true China hand. They at least keep you from inventorying the chewing gum on the seat in front of you, but barely.
Since Penn and Madonna have proved themselves as actors before (or, in Madonna's case, as a seductive and comfortable extension of her own personality), one is tempted to blame the director, Jim Goddard, for the rudderless fix they are in. Yet Goddard's television credits include "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Reilly: Ace of Spies," certainly stylish productions, so that doesn't quite jibe.
Since you wait through the entire film to be told that Madonna isn't really a missionary but a lady of considerably broader experience, and since, in spite of her chain-smoking Lucky Strike Greens, getting drunk or spending all night with sleaze-bag opportunist Penn, that moment never comes, one is tempted to blame the screenwriters, John Kohn and Robert Bentley. They adapted Tony Kenrick's novel "Faraday's Flowers" into this woefully characterized nonsense.
But in the long run, you could simply recall that oldest of saws, that film making is a collaborative effort. So, you can consult the cast box, spread the onus evenly, put the blame on Mame, give the film a Shanghai gesture and stay quietly home with a good book.
'SHANGHAI SURPRISE' A UA/MGM release from MGM of a Handmade Films presentation produced in association with The Vista Organization. Producer John Kohn. Co-producer Robin Douet. Executive producers George Harrison, Denis O'Brien. Director Jim Goddard. Screenplay, Kohn, Robert Bentley, based on the novel "Faraday's Flowers" by Tony Kenrick. Camera Ernie Vincze. Editor Ralph Sheldon. Music George Harrison, Michael Kamen; songs Harrison. Production design Peter Mullins. Art direction John Siddall, David Minty. Costumes Judy Moorcroft. Sound Andrew Boulton. With Sean Penn, Madonna, Paul Freeman, Richard Griffiths, Philip Sayer, Clyde Kusatsu, Kay Tong Lim, Victor Wong.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned to give special guidance for attendance of children under 13).