This is a sneakily satisfying war-time thriller which blends the atmosphere of a 1930’s hard-boiled detective novel with the steamy international intrigue of an old-fashioned Bond film.
The cast are excellent; John Cusak, Chow Yun Fat and Ken Watanabe radiating mutual antagonism and admiration while competing for the attention of the film’s femme fatale. (it’s great to see David Morse getting an interesting role as Cusak’s ambivalent spymaster, too; we’re not entirely sure whose side he’s on. Apart from his own).
Shanghai also boasts an intelligent, plausible plot – an investigation into the death of an American spy in 1941, in one of China’s last remaining international cities, split into Japanese, American and French sectors. There’s a missing girl, a link to the Chinese resistance, a casino scene, a Shanghai gangster, the menacing Japanese military intelligence officer and all manner of plot twists as Cusak’s character slowly uncovers the secret which was important enough to kill his old friend.
The script and dialogue are played just right; not quite into cliché, but firmly in film noir. The main characters are developed well enough that they transcend the notional good-guy bad-guy stereotypes and the relationships between them shift and change throughout the movie … until, as things unravel at the end, it really isn’t clear who will be pulling a trigger, or who might save the day.
The major plot device isn’t entirely surprising, but even that doesn’t dampen the overall quality of the performances and story which more than stands up to scrutiny. A thoroughly enjoyable, slick spy story, set in an unusual situation which made it all the more interesting.