‘Shanghai” is one of those movies with world-weary guys in well-cut suits and fedoras, a tough-as-nails broad who drags imperiously on her cigarettes and plenty of neon reflected on the rain-swept streets. You know it’s only a matter of time before someone slugs his whiskey and growls, “Just get the hell out of Shanghai.”
Director Mikael Hafstrom sets his film in December 1941, which, if you recall, is exactly the same month that, out of all the gin joints in the world, Ilsa walks into Rick’s Cafe Americain in “Casablanca.” That doesn’t seem coincidental, as “Shanghai” tries quite hard to capture some of that old hardboiled-yet-romantic magic.
Like Casablanca, Shanghai at the start of World War II was a colonial city full of spies, occupying military, underground resistance and gangsters working all sides; it’s a recipe for intrigue that has inspired many a neo-noir, from Chinese productions such as “Shanghai Triad” and “Purple Butterfly,” Ang Lee’s hybrid “Lust, Caution” and the more colonial viewpoint of “The White Countess.” Hafstrom’s is the first to drop an American star into the mix, which didn’t seem to help, as one year on, the film has yet to be released in the States.
John Cusack gets the Humphrey Bogart role, and while Cusack has done noir before (“The Grifters”), he just doesn’t have a voice like Bogey for this material; maybe he needs to hit the bottle more.
Cusack plays Soames, a just-arrived American spy posing as a dissolute journalist and trying to discover who murdered his former partner and why. He soon makes the acquaintance of a suspicious femme fatale (Gong Li) he meets in a casino, and her triad boss husband (Chow Yun-Fat). Tailing him is an urbane yet brutal Japanese military intelligence officer (Ken Watanabe), who knows that open conflict with the Western powers is just around the corner. (Rinko Kikuchi, despite getting prominent billing on the Japanese promotional material, barely gets any screen time.)
The parallels with “Casablanca” are many: Cusack’s cynical hero, like Bogey’s, knows the woman he’s risking his neck for loves another man. Li, like Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, believes in the cause more than her heart, while Watanabe gets the Claude Rains role of a cop who knows when to bend the rules. (This sympathetic portrayal of a wartime Japanese character led the Chinese government to bar the filmmakers from shooting in Shanghai.) The film’s tepid ending, however, reveals that the mixed emotions of the finale of “Casablanca,” the very poignancy of the film, are something that modern filmmakers are likely never to get past a preview audience.
Director Roman Polanski knows a thing or two about neo-noirs — see 1974’s “Chinatown,” the film that pretty much defined the genre — but he doesn’t feel the need to beat that drum in “The Ghost Writer,” a political thriller set in the here and now. Yet the film’s cynicism and fatalism, the inescapable, clammy feeling that you can’t beat the powers that be, is nothing if not noir.
The look, however, is far different, set under a cold grey sky on a secluded New England isle, where former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) has retired to pen his memoirs. Ewan McGregor turns up as his ghost writer, promised a hefty sum to crank out the book on schedule.
The ghost clearly has his misgivings, given that his predecessor turned up dead under a very suspicious set of circumstances. Furthermore, he seems to be stuck in the middle of a marital tiff between Lang and his politically savvy wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), which involves Lang’s aide Amelia (Kim Cattrall, whose portrayal just screams “home-wrecker”).
The ghost is hoping for some peace and quiet to shape Lang’s stinker into something readable, but that changes when Lang is indicted by the International Criminal Court on crimes against humanity related to actions he took in supporting the U.S.-led war on terrorism. (The Tony Blair parallels are obvious for anyone who’s looking, but there’s a Ronald Reagan-esque element as well.) A media frenzy descends on Lang’s home, as the writer begins to sense there’s something he’s not being told.
“The Ghost Writer,” based on the novel “The Ghost” by Robert Harris, feels very much like an Alfred Hitchcock film dragged into today’s headlines, especially in its deceptive plotting and precise cinematography. The clammy atmosphere of paranoia, where literally everyone seems to be hiding something, is pure Polanski, though, while the feeling of being under media siege may have been informed by the director’s recent stint of house arrest at a Swiss resort.
The cast all keep their cards close: Brosnan is charming yet something of a cypher, while Williams is just amazing, displaying a ferocious intelligence and canny ability to manipulate the men around her. Tom Wilkinson shows up late in the game as a think-tank professor with shady connections and is positively chilling; every line in his encounter with the writer drips with disdain and menace. McGregor is also at his best: He fully establishes his character’s puzzled curiosity regarding the lives of the rich and powerful, and the sarcastic wit he employs leaves the viewer convinced — as is the ghost himself- that he’s the smartest guy in the room. Big mistake.