Movie review of “Shanghai”: This World War II-era melodrama feels a bit stale, but Gong Li is radiant. Rating: 2 stars out of 4.

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The decidedly retro World War II-era melodrama “Shanghai” is a throwback in every sense of the word. Not only is its aesthetic firmly placed in the 1940s, it almost feels like it could have been made in 1990s Hollywood, when “Greatest Generation”-type nostalgic films like “The Rocketeer” were made. It’s also a throwback considering its release. Shot in 2008, the film premiered in China in 2010. Finally, it is making an appearance in the U.S., but after all this time, this epic war melodrama feels a bit stale.

John Cusack stars as Paul Soames, an American secret agent posing as a journalist in 1941 Shanghai, just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. He followed his best bud and fellow spy, Connor (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), there, only to find him shot dead in the street, and a murder mystery involving Connor’s opium junkie girlfriend and a Japanese general (Ken Watanabe). Paul also finds himself hopelessly entangled with Anna (Gong Li), the gambling wife of a local gangster (Chow Yun-Fat), who secretly works for the Chinese resistance while her husband enjoys a mutually beneficial relationship with their Japanese occupiers.

Cusack puts in work as Paul, but he seems miscast. He sometimes pulls off the debonair spy thing, but often tips over into near parody of the genre in his acting style.

Movie Review ★★  

‘Shanghai,’ with John Cusack, Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat, Ken Watanabe. Directed by Mikael Håfström, from a screenplay by Hossein Amini. 104 minutes. Rated R for strong violence, some drug use and brief language. SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Varsity.

The tale is also convoluted. It’s not until the last third of the film that the spine of the story becomes clear, as Paul closes in on his friend’s murderer.

But Gong Li is radiant as Anna, and the triangle among her, Paul and her husband — the most graceful gangster ever, thanks to the inimitable élan of Chow Yun-Fat — proves to be the most interesting thing in the film.