Perhaps the best that can be said for Mikael Hafstrom’s “Shanghai” is that in spite the five years it sat on the shelf before puttering into U.S. theaters this weekend, it’s far from the type of hide-the-children disaster that its release strategy would seem to suggest. The bad news: It’s nonetheless not that hard to imagine why the Weinstein Co. was in no particular hurry to get it out. Despite boasting a lush period setting and plenty of recognizable stars from five different major territories, this derivative, ploddingly plotted WWII-set thriller goes through all the motions of an old-school wartime spy pic with plenty of technical competence but zero panache, the filmic equivalent of a bar band working through one last Skynyrd cover just before last call. Released in most Asian markets back in 2010, the film seems highly unlikely to add much to its tally in belated Stateside release.
In late 1941, shortly before the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor and fully occupy Shanghai, an American spy named Paul Soames (John Cusack) sails into the tumultuous Chinese city under cover as a journalist. He’s been transferred from a previous post in Berlin, hoping to be reunited with his old college buddy and fellow spy Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but no sooner has he arrived than Conner is murdered under strange circumstances outside the home of his Japanese mistress, Sumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), who is in desperate need of a passport.
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If that sounds conspicuously like the opening reel of “The Third Man,” “Shanghai” provides more than enough tilted camera angles and voiceovers describing the city’s international zones to complete the homage. But it’s nothing if not an equal-opportunity pilferer, also pulling from the likes of “Casablanca,” “Five Fingers” and “Lust, Caution” as its medium-boiled hero dives headfirst into the city’s simmering stew of deadly conspiracies and suspicious characters.
At the top of his list: Anna (Gong Li), the lustrous, well-connected wife of charming criminal kingpin Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-fat), whom Paul meets in a Bond-esque poker match. She turns out to be working for the Chinese resistance under the nose of a menacing Japanese security officer (Ken Watanabe), who is desperate to find the now-missing Sumiko, who was once his mistress. Meanwhile, Paul digs deeper into the investigations Conner had been conducting, stages meetings with a nervous double agent (Benedict Wong), clashes with his newspaper editor (Hugh Bonneville) and his military handler (David Morse), and plots liaisons with the lonely wife (Franka Potente) of a high-ranking Nazi official (Christopher Buchholz).
As overstuffed as it quickly becomes, “Shanghai’s” plot is never particularly complicated, but it nonetheless proves weirdly hard to follow due to the characters’ poorly sketched motivations. At times, Paul seems to be a loyal functionary following orders; at others, he’s a lone wolf seeking vengeance for his murdered friend, and Hossein Amini’s screenplay never bothers to specify which Paul we’re watching at any given time. Depending on the scene, he can be a bumbling neophyte, a deep-cover super-sleuth, a brash action hero, a sardonic neutral and a reckless romantic, and Cusack seems to be at a loss for how to best collate all these clashing character traits. It also doesn’t help that he and Gong have all the romantic spark of a damp dishrag, dispassionately flinging lines of banter at each other even when they’re supposed to be deep in the throes of forbidden desire.
“Shanghai’s” haphazard scripting and low-wattage direction may sap it of any tension — most egregiously, the film relies on voiceover and flashbacks to spell out a backstory that proves entirely irrelevant — but at least it’s easy on the eyes. Despite being forced to uproot production from Shanghai to Bangkok and London, production designer Jim Clay and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme do intriguing work with the improvised settings, striking a painstaking balance between authentic-looking decor and backlot-style artifice that gives the whole picture a seductive, hyperreal aura. It’s a shame the film fails to provide an emotional throughline to match.