*. I’ll confess that I went into The Shanghai Cobra with very low expectations. I’d enjoyed the previous Charlie Chan movie, The Scarlet Clue, but mainly because I was watching a restored and colourized print. The print I saw of The Shanghai Cobra was in a dismal state, with a blurry picture and a soundtrack filled with bubble-wrap popping sounds. This, I thought, was going to be painful.
*. The opening scene, however, actually looked like it was done with style. And style is not a word I have often employed in my notes on the Charlie Chan filmography. There are a couple of men in trenchcoats, a woman, a rainy street, a diner. It’s very noir and, allowing for the poor quality of the print, looked good. I made a note to check the name of the director because this all seemed a notch above the usual Chan fare.
*. As it turns out, the director was Phil Karlson and this was his first Chan movie. He’d only go on to do one other, Dark Alibi. The only other film by him I’ve seen is Kansas City Confidential, an underrated noir of the same period. So full credit to Phil for making it work, especially seeing as he had so little to work with.
*. The story here is only the usual war-time espionage guff about gangsters or spies or something like that trying to steal some radium from a bank vault. There is also a subplot which turns out to be a red herring involving some guy who crossed paths with Charlie years earlier when he was suspected of killing people with injections of cobra venom. Well, guess what? People at the bank are now dying of cobra venom.
*. If you think the cobra venom angle is ridiculous just wait. It gets worse. How do people get injected with the venom? Well, one way is that at this hole-in-the-wall diner there’s a new type of jukebox that has a camera in it, so when you put your coin in a female DJ in an office miles away can view you on a video screen. Why? Don’t know. I have no idea what the point of this is. If anything, I’d be less inclined to put a coin in a jukebox that was spying on me. Nor is it clear what sort of greater functionality such a remote camera system has for someone who just wants to listen to a particular song.
*. Anyway, here’s the thing: pushing the button on the jukebox triggers a needle that injects the victim with cobra venom, and in such a way that the victims don’t even realize they’ve been stuck. I’m not going to explain any more. It’s that stupid.
*. There’s not much to add. Mantan Moreland is back as Birmingham Brown but he seems tired of these shenanigans. Benson Fong actually appears to be getting more relaxed in the role of Tommy Chan. Karlson gives some of the sets, like the bank vault and a sewer, some atmosphere. But overall this is nothing special and the ridiculousness of the plot was a bit much even for this franchise.