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An almost great film, but more importantly an excellent homage/throwback to film-noir.
They sure don't make films like these anymore. Back in the 1930's - 1950's the cinemas were filled with reels of gangster/detective films shot in black and white. The days of classic films such as "Double Indemnity", "Notorious", "The Maltese Falcon" and "Touch Of Evil" were long gone. In it's place we have, today, overbudgeted, overblown films that causes today's youthful audiences to have Attention Deficit Disorder and be bored at any film that is not filled with explosions every two milliseconds. In between then and now we had many homages to film-noir that stand out on their own. Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" for instance is the best "neo-noir" film ever made and many films directed by Michael Mann also have strong noirish influences. "Shanghai", while not excellent, manages to become a good, neat little thriller on its own right, but properly includes the classic noirish themes of the 40's
50's that gave the classic films the reputation they have now.
Granted, the script by Hossein Amini has mostly nothing new apart from the noirish elements from those other classic noir films. It's an old- fashioned American murder mystery, but set in the Far East. Familiar plot revelations take place as our hero weaves his way through a web of lies, deceit/deception, betrayal, romance, murder, corruption, and in this film's case, war. What stood out in the film's screenplay is the number of languages used in the film: English, Japanese and Chinese, although I wished the latter two were featured more prominently than they were in the final film. And I have to admit, although unoriginal, the twists in the movie are intriguing and kept my attention.
The international actors are great and fit into their roles like tailor- made suits. John Cusack as the protagonist gives off his Bogie-like character a subtle and calm performance that is also charming. Gong Li, beautiful as ever, is the main dame of the film and she has that sultry, mysterious look in her eyes that you can't take your eyes off of her. Chow Yun-Fat, finally in a role worth watching him in, is the mob boss who may or may not be on Cusack's character's side, as he adapts an extremely charming yet secretive personality under that face of his. And Ken Watanabe has that sinister vibe in him as the film's primary antagonist, though he exudes a certain class to his villainous character. Fine supporting characters played by interesting actors such as David Morse, Rinko Kikuchi, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Franka Potente round up the very distinguished and diversified cast.
Production value and cinematography are top-notch as they transport you back in time to the glamor and grit of pre-occupied Shanghai, with its well-designed and furbished sets/locations filled with plenty of real extras instead of CG ones for a nice change, and crisp, properly lighted scenes with big and wide camera angles so to appreciate the settings even more. Klaus Badelt scores the film with a proper suspenseful element to it making it feel more at home with the noirish crowd without feeling to overdone, thus also making it easier to evoke emotions in the audience, especially to those who are new to the noir genre. Thanks to Mikael Håfström for his focused direction in bringing the best out of the actors.
This is, more importantly, a throwback to the noirish days of old. This film would be a great starting point for those new to noir, and people who like thrillers should give this nostalgic time capsule a chance.
Entertainment value: 9/10
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