App. # 829.86/HF2.4
Point of Origin Warner Brothers Studios, via Handmade Films
Passage Via Penn, Sean – Ciccone, M.
Reaching back to the 1980s for the next applicant is revealing. This was a production from a time of economic largesse, the two stars are products of that era, and it produced some of the most virulent reactions towards a film in that decade. It became as rotten as produce left in a car’s trunk for a month.
Following the rampant success of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Romancing the Stone” there was a hunger by studios to replicate the successful formula of adventure tales in distant locales. Hollywood is nothing if not a laboratory of repetitive ideas so when a formula is thought to be fertile it will become exploited, even if the material is lacking.
In 1985 Australian author Tony Kenrick had a new novel — Faraday’s Flowers — and prior to publication it was shopped around to Hollywood studios. The book was released to yawns but MGM bought the rights and renamed the saga, offering the script to numerous stars. At this time the tempestuous union of Madonna and Sean Penn began and they desired to work on a movie together. Among the stack of scripts the singer had been sent she was drawn to this adaptation – due to its yellow dust cover. She and Sean decided it would be a lark to work in an exotic destination and everyone connected became excited. Casting the most famous celebrity couple was thought lead to a surefire hit and as a result nobody seemed concerned with the script, the production, nor quality of work.
From the standpoint of thespian talents Sean Penn brings a lot to the table, however rakish, leading-man good looks is not one of those things. He’s barely able to achieve pulled-from-a-burning-car-wreck passably rugged. Conversely the hyper-sexualized Madonna has endured constant mockery for her performances. One thing that needs to be credited to her is the range of roles she has taken. Her filmography includes the whorish actress in “Dangerous Game”, the mattress-swimming career of Eva Peron in “Evita”, a murderous slut in “Body of Evidence”, the cartoonish trollop in “Dick Tracy”, and the skanky socialite in “Swept Away”. Here she plays a religious gal with loose-morals, so it’s a bit of a stretch.
During production there was constant drama behind the scenes as Penn was in full cameraman-bashing mode of his life and the contentious relationship with the press meant horrible advance publicity. Additionally all signs of a doomed picture were in place; numerous release date changes, no advance screenings for critics, and the celebrated couple was so upset with the experience they refused to do any publicity, even preventing use of their likeness for Kenrick’s movie tie-in paperback release. Very soon the studio realized they had to limit their losses, suspending most advanced advertising and cutting the release from 1,000 prints down to 400.
For her part our lead actress shows she is under skilled and overmatched — while overconfident and under the impression she knows what she’s doing. Madonna has been scorched for her acting talents and we have testimony this is not merely a media construct. Producer John Kron said of his lead actress that she displayed no interest in working at the craft and resisted multiple takes to improve things:
- Before a scene she would never ask questions about the character’s inner motivations or how she related to the other characters. So on set the minute the guy would yell ACTION she didn’t have a clue what she was doing. She would just walk through a scene and think she had given a fine performance when it was nothing of the sort.
In fact this attitude was confirmed by Madonna many years later in a discussion of her “talents” when she said, “What’s a ‘trained’ actress? I think that living the life I live I’ve paid my dues.” This is a revealing bit of candor. One thing very evident in this film is the performance of an actress who is manifestly untrained.
VALIDATION FOR PASSAGE
As horrifically humorous as Madonna is on screen she is not the only disaster here. The story is one of those muddled multiple-double-cross affairs that is inscrutable. Do not confuse this with a complex story that requires excessive mental activity on the part of the viewer. This is a non-sensical, contradictory affair with arbitrary occurrences moving things forward. At times Madonna’s talent vacuum distracts from the idiocies, and other times the farcical activities divert your laughter from the singer/actress. At no point will you be confronted with the concept of competency.
A credit sequence involves Asian graphics and an ersatz oriental pop ditty, performed by former Beatle George Harrison, involved here due to his production company, Handmade Films. Despite a Chinese setting the lyrics and imagery are a random mixture of take-out menu items, with references to tofu, Japanese bonsai, as well as Asia Minor — and the line, “out of the wok and into the fire” for bad measure.
A title card displays 1937 THE YEAR OF JAPANESE OCCUPATION. We meet two men dining, one of which makes mention of “flowers”, and then outside they approach a collection of rickshaws, two of which are loaded with wooden crates. Walter Faraday opens one to pluck out a fist-sized ball, his friend discovering the “flowers” refer to his shipment of opium. With backs turned Faraday’s assistant named Wu bellows and suddenly the rickshaws take flight. Faraday and friend can only watch, seemingly helpless to run after the shipment, leaving on foot.
Next they are surrounded by Chinese soldiers and a commander named Mei Gan approaches. He demands things of Faraday and confiscates the man’s bulky money belt. He empties the compartments, with Faraday saying the last one contains only mothballs. The commander foolishly opens it and his hands are blown off, allowing the men to flee. Idiotically they jump into the harbor and Faraday is shot. Fade to apathy.
And fade in to ONE YEAR LATER. A priest named Mr. Burns is walking with Madonna, playing Miss Tatlock, a virginal missionary who– . . . STOP LAUGHING! I’m serious, she is playing a missionary. They are collecting alms to help wounded soldiers in the war effort. As they amble we start to hear acerbic yelling from one wretch on the dock:
- Where’s my baggage, you scab-ass crab lice?! You thievin’ cornhole bastard! Right up your neck, you syphilitic pig-trash!!
Ladies and gentlemen, your dashing charismatic hero – Sean Penn!
Mr. Burns is captivated by this display and says, “I think we may have found our man.” Madonna speaks – “Mr. Burns, you can’t be serious.” – and instantly proves incapable of this job. Just with her first six words the enunciation and delivery are blatantly amateurish and laughable, never to improve. Next Penn, in a goofball accent that will quickly disappear, complains to the priest that his naked woman tattoo is lacking in nipples. His name is Glendon Wasey, and he is needed because he speaks the local lingo, to help them track down a rickshaw puller named Wu (catch that?) whose son is wounded.
They barter for Wasey’s services and he agrees for the right price. Tatlock is repulsed by Wasey’s appearance, his attitude, and his naked lady necktie (yea, right!) Wasey explains he has trunks loaded with the vulgar accessories, which he will take to America and sell for a fortune. I presume he’ll be opening the first Spencers Gift store.
First order of business is to pry some cash from Tatlock for booze, then more cash to join a gambling ring to get information. While men haggle over crickets wrestling in a bowl he asks around about this Wu, and the crowd gets angry and chases them off. As they escape a suited Brit takes up pursuit. This leads to . . . I swear . . . a moronic rickshaw chase scene, complete with “Collateral Commerce Damage Chase Requirement”.
They confront the nervous man named Justin Kronk, who ends up serving as the film’s character-of-convenience. Kronk places them in contact with a man knowing how to find Wu, but requires you do business to get information. He sells insurance for “treasured parts” of the body, and Madonna is supposed to be offended by the frank medical charts, (yea, right!) They settle on buying a policy covering Tatlock’s “twin pagodas” and “haven of celestial bliss” – not a bad idea considering her history dating half of the NBA. The indemnity broker takes them outside but crosses them, pushing them into a boat’s cargo hold full of fish.
They each have to go to a bath house to clean up, and Kronk comes in to espouse more plot, telling Glendon that Wu has no son. This leads him to confront Tatlock who confesses to what the plan truly concerns: they are trying to track down the stolen shipment of opium to use it for morphine for the soldiers. Now this obtuse story goes totally screwy. First off, why would anyone believe the opium has not been processed and consumed after one year? This is not a bank-heist loot, it is drugs. Then we learn the shipment was 1,100 pounds of opium. Pick up on that? We are to believe that over one half of a ton of drugs was spirited away with only two rickshaws.
Wasey has not questioned things, despite a church mission using donations hiring a wretch, buying booze, gambling, a spa visit, and insuring Tatlock’s tits, all to find a shipment of drugs. Wasey is bemused, realizing she is after the legend of Faraday’s Flowers, and he spews details. Faraday was known as The Opium King, and ultimately he was shot, drowned, burned, skinned, and then deboned. Then somehow he was strung up for all to see – despite being basically dust. (Faraday should have insured his haven of celestial bliss!) Glendon is done now and goes back to retrieve his naked neckwear.
At the mission Burns convinces Wasey to stay on board with them. He decides to use more church funds to purchase Glendon a ticket on a steamer to the U.S, putting him up in a nice motel room, and springing for a five-star dinner with Tatlock. Seriously, the Shanghai government needs to check into this mission’s tax-exempt status. At dinner they find the ever-present Kronk, and are then joined by Mr. Tuttle, the friend of Faraday from the intro (played by Richard Griffiths, “Harry Potter’s” Uncle Vernon.) The group decides Wasey needs to visit a woman named China Doll, a former lover of Faraday’s. Sure, whatever.
This woman lives on a large boat and believes she’s a concubine who is well-schooled in sex positions, for some reason. Wasey spends the night and then returns to his room, where Tatlock is awaiting details. He says he was so distracted by the sex he never got ask about Faraday, so Tatlock wants him to go back immediately, except he wants breakfast. Instead Wasey gets snatched by the cops. An interrogation takes place with Mei Gan, now a cop who has porcelain hands, wanting details on China Girl. Glendon says nothing so he is strapped into an idiotic torture device until he admits to looking for the opium. Mei Gan laughs, there is a dissolve, and inexplicably Wasey wakes up in his hotel room. No explanation needed, just move along, nothing to see here!
Tatlock is there, imploring him to go back to China Girl for info. He demurs, she begs him to help, and he says, “I don’t volunteer to pass the salt.” This now inspires the virginal missionary to strip down and have sex with him, making him indentured. Uh, miss? You are supposed to dangle the promise of sex to motivate a man — you cannot give him two milkshakes and then expect a check in the mail for a bovine purchase. This scene between the married lovers is stark for its abject lack of sexual chemistry. She basically forces herself on him while he resists like a child. It feels like a love scene between two high school actors who speak different languages – one of which is gay. Eventually they do it in the missionary position.
The next morning he wakes to find Tatlock swilling whiskey. She feels guilty for blackmailing him and falls out the window (don’t ask) and then she bleats now she does not want him to see China Doll, and he confesses to asking her about Faraday. So to recap: He lied for no reason, she screwed him to force him to go back, then she did not want him to back, and he admits he did not need to go back. They bond over this idiocy. Brother. I need to fast-track things here; I cannot stand these two much longer.
China Doll said she got the Opium from Wu and sold it to a gangster named Joe Go, a Chinese-American patriot who loves baseball and is well spoken, save for his need to talk in the third person. Joe Go states he did deal for the opium from Wu, but when it arrived it was only bricks, saying Faraday made a switch. Then we learn Joe manufactures the exploding money belts, calling them “The Shanghai Surprise”. (Wouldn’t that mean Joe and Faraday had met? Oh, never mind.) Joe puts them in touch with Wu, but demands $12,000. Instead Wasey teaches Joe how to throw a knuckle ball. This works out, because factoring inflation $12K of 1938 dollars translates to roughly Tim Wakefield’s salary today.
Sean and Madonna make it to a grimy opium den and meet Wu, who spouts some Chinese mysticism about a phoenix scratching a grave, instead of giving answers, and they are content with this useless response. There’s another visit to the restaurant to meet Tuttle, and of course Kronk. Through illogic they conclude “phoenix” references Mei Gan, but Wasey is fed up and leaves. Outside they are forcefully dragged to meet Joe, wanting details, who says, “Joe Go student of Chinese mythology shit.” He manages to resolve nothing. Glendon kisses Tatlock goodbye, goes to his hotel, and finds Tuttle and Kronk waiting, gun drawn. All this to sit down, and give him information. Huh? Don’t worry, just keep moving . . .
They connect Mei Gan to Faraday, deciding “scratching grave” refers to him being a tomb robber and, for no reason, Wasey connects this to China Doll. Back on her boat he learns the “flowers” are not opium but actually jewels, stolen from her family’s crypts. Mei Gan stole them, Faraday lifted them off Mei Gan, and China Doll got them from Faraday. Where are they now? No idea. But wait, we actually saw the shipment of opium at the open. Screw it, keep going.
This takes Wasey to the Mission where the pair updates Burns, now upset the flowers are “merely a bunch of jewels”. Tatlock tries – and fails – to be the voice of reason, saying they could sell the gems to get opium. Burns decries, “We’re missionaries; we’re not in the business of fencing stolen property!” Missionaries, we then conclude, ARE in the business of starting their own drug cartel.
Glendon decides to take Tatlock to visit China Doll a third time to ask for the gems. C.D. asks why she would believe the proceeds would go for opium and not guns, so Tatlock gives her truncated fortune-cookie wisdom: “Guns cause pain – opium eases pain.” And this convinced her to give up a family fortune to a drunken stranger and a corrupted missionary. Returning to the dock they are surrounded by cops, but then Joe Go drives up to rescue them, because everyone in Shanghai follows the movements of this couple. They try escaping, then get out and . . . run back to the dock? What the . . .? Anyway, there’s a big confrontation, and Mei Gan gets hold of Wasey’s money belt. He now makes Wasey open the compartments, having learned his lesson, and Glendon repeats Faraday’s mothball lines from the intro somehow. He empties every pocket, and it is returned to Mei Gan, only THEN it blows up, rendering the man’s hands for a second time (Doh!). Ten people were on the dock yet the explosion ONLY affected the cops, so the rest flee. Joe Go snatches the gems, with Tatlock bizarrely shrieking, “I do not accept this – I DO NOT ACCEPT THIS!!! She kicks him in his own jewels, Wasey takes out the body guard with a baseball, and gems are recovered.
And still we are not finished!
At the mission they show the jewels to Burns, just as Tuttle and Kronk come in with guns. Burns uses karate-Fu to subdue them, then shocks Tatlock as he peels off his whiskers and wig — he is actually Faraday! Hold on, this was supposed to be a surprise??? Oh brother. This all means Faraday’s moronic plan was for a stranger to learn imperceptible clues and meet half of Shanghai to possibly reclaim the gems, when all he needed to do was go back to his ex-girlfriend’s place. Anyway, he steals the jewels and Wasey’s boat ticket and locks the couple in wicker baskets. Yes, that happens – he LOCKS them in WICKER baskets.
Not content with that stupidity, there is a scene where the stars conduct dialogue while “trapped”, the baskets actually shot in coverage. I swear, this movie feels like a prank by the producers; it’s like they dared themselves to make things so asinine the studio would throw them overboard.
SOME-how our heroes escape their picnic basket tombs and head for the boat to confront Faraday. In his cabin they learn the jewels were fakes so Tatlock says goodbye, but Wasey is staying behind because – naturally — Faraday brought along his trunks of naked lady ties! But Wasey has a change of heart, so as Faraday uses the bathroom Glendon has a porter quickly gather the trunks and sneak off to shore.
On the dock the lovers reconcile and they see Faraday having a panic attack at the stern of the departing ship. Wasey digs through one trunk and finds the opium was hidden underneath the tacky ties. That is 1,100 pounds of opium, easily carted off by hand and casually tossed into the back of a truck. Cue to happy ending, the lovers smiling and waving to Faraday, embarking on a life together selling drugs and lewd clothing.
QUOTES FROM REFERENCES
- Wasey: A missionary, Lying! It’s like pissing all over God’s uniform!
- Wasey (in 1938): That’s mighty white of you, Burns.
- Wasey (to Tatlock, drinking whiskey): That stuff will tear a hole in your stomach. Tatlock: Good. Maybe it’ll balance the hole in my head!
- Wasey (to Kronk): You know everything! You probably know how many freckles I have on my ass!
As bad as the script is clearly the main cause of this becoming a disaster lies with the two stars. Everyone seemed convinced bringing them together on screen was all that was needed. Such was their belief that the world salivated at the two attractively-challenged individuals that Sean declared during production, “This film doesn’t need publicity.” The people will go to see it because we’re in it.” It is rare when hindsight delivers you such a delicious nugget as this. At a cost of $17 million the film that didn’t need publicity earned a dismal $2 mil.
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