Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Shanghai Movie Poster Image
Good-looking, ambitious, but muddled '40s-set thriller.
  • R
  • 2015
  • 105 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Characters' main motivations seem to be revenge and lust for power.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The characters may look good in their period costumes, but they're not particularly admirable in any way.


Several scenes of soldiers or gangsters shooting people, with blood sprays. Stabbing with bayonets. Knives and neck-slicing. Beating, with bloody faces. Explosions. Fighting.


Men with (implied) mistresses. Main character shown in bed with a married woman and kisses another married woman.


Infrequent use of "bulls--t," "bastard," "son of a bitch," "hell," "bitch," and "crap."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A secondary character seems addicted to opium (she has withdrawals). Needles shown. Scenes of an opium den, with opium smokers. Plenty of scenes of social drinking at parties or clubs. A character drinks several shots in a row. Some smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Shanghai is a period thriller meant to evoke the spy/detective movies of the 1940s; it looks beautiful, and the screenplay is ambitious, but it eventually becomes muddled and lost. There are several scenes of shooting, with blood sprays and death, as well as punching and stabbing (and the associated bloody wounds). There's no nudity, but the main character is shown in bed with a married woman and kissing a second married woman, and there's talk of men cheating on their wives. Language is infrequent but includes uses of "s--t," "bastard," and "bitch." A secondary character seems to be addicted to opium; she goes through withdrawals and is injected with a needle. Scenes take place in an opium den, with opium smokers shown, and characters drink and smoke fairly frequently in clubs and at parties.

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What's the story?

In 1941, Shanghai is the last city in China that's not entirely controlled by the Japanese. American Naval Intelligence officer Paul Soames (John Cusack) arrives there to meet his friend and colleague Conner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). When Soames learns that Conner has been killed, Soames poses as a newspaperman to find the person responsible. He becomes friendly with a Triad leader, Anthony Lan-Ting (Chow Yun-fat), and his wife, Anna (Gong Li), as well as the Japanese Captain Tanaka (Ken Watanabe). He discovers that Anna may be a spy and that Captain Tanaka's mistress, Sumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), was secretly seeing Conner. If Soames can find Sumiko before it's too late, he may have the key to the whole puzzle.

Is it any good?

Written by the talented Hossein Amini and clearly inspired by spy and detective movies of the 1940s, this seems to have been a labor of love. But SHANGHAI is so convoluted that it eventually becomes lost. That said, the cast is a great collection of international personalities, all of whom seem to fit right into the period clothing and setting, and they all move and speak with the appropriate rhythms. And for a long time, it's easy to follow them, even as the plot becomes more complex.

Amini's screenplay is certainly ambitious, but as it reaches its climax, it takes too many short cuts and can't keep up its high level of storytelling. Director Mikael Hafstrom -- whose previous movie with Cusack, the ghost story 1408, was so vividly atmospheric and effective -- seems rather confused here. The movie frequently betrays too many nervous cuts, as if to cover up Hafstrom's increasing discombobulation as to what's actually going on. But Shanghai may have been doomed anyway; it sat on the shelf for five years before finally being released in the United States.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Shanghai's violence. How did it affect you? Did it thrill you or make you feel uneasy? Did it evoke a particular time and place? What's the impact of media violence on kids?

  • There's no nudity in the movie, but characters seem to be sexually involved with people outside their marriages. Does this change the way you see them?

  • What did you learn about the time and place that the movie is set in? How could you find out more?

  • How much smoking and drinking are in the film? Do they help evoke the period? Are they glamorized?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love thrills

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