Approaching the coronation of China’s first empress, key officials fall prey to spontaneous human combustion. With little other option The Empress must pardon an old adversary, the celebrated lawman Detective Dee (Andy Lau), who must get to the bottom of these ‘crimes’ using a combination of his wits and kung-fu.
As far as famed Hong Kong directors go, it would be fair to say that Tsui Hark is second only to John Woo. His visions are always ambitious but the final results have varied wildly in quality. For every work of mad genius (Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain) there is a crushing disappointment (The Legend of Zu) and for every out right classic (Once Upon A Time In China) there are at least two limp knock-offs (The Blade, Black Mask 2: City of Masks).
His success in the field has never been doubted though, as is evident from this latest release Detective Dee and The Mystery of the Phantom Flame, which out-grossed Inception in Asia and scooped a staggering six wins at the 30th Hong Kong Film Awards.
So, is it as good as all that would suggest? In a word, no, but it is a lot of fun. An old fashioned boys-own adventure that sits somewhere between Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and Hong Kong classic, The Swordsman.
What is immediately striking are the visuals. Vast and beautifully rendered landscapes combined with gorgeous, preciously photographed interior sets make for a consistent visual treat. The CG is relatively obvious, but compared with much of Asia’s CG efforts; the outcome is a cut above the rest.
The story is little more than the stuff of old-school Saturday morning cartoons, but in all fairness, that’s half the fun. It’s ludicrous, so you will never guess how it will twist and turn, and it is infinitely easier to follow than many Chinese films of the same ilk. However, with a running time of nearly two hours Detective Dee gets dangerously close to outstaying its welcome. Being fifteen or twenty minutes shorter would have serviced it well.
The acting is solid, if a tad broad to those unused to Chinese period based films, with Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, House of Flying Daggers) confident, as always, as the lead. It certainly isn’t one of his standout performances, but he gets the job done.
If there is anything that is majorly disappointing about Detective Dee, I would say it is the action, which is doubly disappointing as it was handled by the legendary Sammo Hung, who only recently delivered fine action in both Ip Man movies. The type of action at play here is fantastical, high-flying wire-fu, swordplay. It isn’t poorly put together, it’s just not very inspired, falling short of lesser known swordplay flicks such as Moon Warriors and New Dragon Gate Inn (both highly recommended), though it scores bonus points for the world’s first Man vs. Stag(s) action sequence (to this reviewer’s knowledge).
The best advice would be to put out of your mind the hype machine that Detective Dee has become, and treat it as the fun time killer that it is.
C+ grade – for originality
C+ grade – for storytelling
B+ grade – for visuals
C grade – for action
Overall grade – C+
Detective Dee will be available on region 2, 2 disc DVD and Blu-ray on June 27 2011, courtesy of Cine Asia.
Features include a Cine Asia exclusive featurette, commentary by Asian film experts Bey Logan and Mike Leeder, interviews, behind the scenes and more.
Watch the trailer…