A murder mystery in the titular city at the heart of World War II is the basis for this average and somewhat predictable whose only asset is the ensemble cast.

In 1941 Shanghai, Conner is an agent who has been murdered. To find out what has happened, the Embassy sends in Paul Soames, a Naval Intelligence Commission agent to find out what has happened. It is somewhat personal as Conner was Paul’s best friend. Disguising himself as a reporter for the local Herald, he manipulates his way to an invitation only event at the German Embassy thanks to the help of Leni Müller, a friend from Berlin who has joined him and her husband to the Chinese city.

There, Paul meets Anthony Lan-Ting, a respected and influential crime boss as well as Japanese officer Tanaka. Anthony has been able to use his power and money to influence the Japanese to leave him alone. There, Paul also meets Anna, Anthony’s wife. When Paul saves Anthony from an attack from a Chinese resistance member, the two strike up a friendship. However, Paul slowly begins to fall for Anna and also finds himself learning slowly the key as to who may be responsible for Conner’s murder and must find that key in a young woman named Sumiko as she may know who is responsible for the murder as she witnessed it that fateful night.

This film is meant to be a political thriller/murder mystery that in all honesty, should have been executed better. Hossein Amini’s screenplay has the film set just a few months before the infamous Pearl Harbor when the Japanese took over the titular city. As much as the ensemble cast would be the reason to see this film, it ultimately falls flat. The ensemble does make the most of what they have to work with, but there are a few problems at hand.

John Cusack plays the agent who finds himself enthralled in a murder mystery and finds his life even more complicated. Instead of a straightforward character, the character of Paul is quite a complex character whom even towards the end of the film, doesn’t seem to care anymore about who killed his friend and is more worried about his potential love interest in Anna, played by Gong Li. As for Gong, thankfully, her romantic chemistry with Cusack works somewhat while Cusack’s first affair, with Franka Potente, just seems not exactly there and it’s clear he is only using her.

With the casting of Chow Yun-Fat and Ken Watanabe, this should be quite a worthy film. However, with Chow playing a benevolent (of sorts) crime boss and the Japanese officer Chow’s character pays off, they may play pivotal roles but they do not make quite an impact in the film. It is true that these veterans can have hits and misses, but here it is just a clear miss. Andy On even finds himself wasted to an effect as a member of the Chinese resistance, who attempt to over throw the Japanese as well as Rinko Kikuchi finding herself making the most of her role as the woman who witnessed the murder that sets the stage for this very film.

As much as Shanghai had potential due to its ensemble, it is not that good sadly. From Cusack’s portrayal of a very complex character to a wasted effort from the likes of Chow Yun-Fat and Ken Watanabe despite their roles being pivotal, it just needed a better style of execution. Thankfully, the chemistry of Gong Li and John Cusack is a positive effect of the film. The rest? Not as good.


The Weinstein Company Living Films presents a Phoenix Pictures production in association with the TWC Asian Film Fund. Director: Mikael Håfström. Producers: Donna Gigliotti, Mike Medavoy, Barry Mendel, and Jake Myers. Writer: Hossein Amini. Cinematography: Benoît Delhomme. Editing: Peter Boyle and Kevin Tent

Cast: John Cusack, Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat, David Morse, Ken Watanabe, Rinko Kikuchi, Franka Potente, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Hugh Bonneville, Andy On, Tang Hon-Ping, Benedict Wong, Christopher Buchholz.