“Shatuo… you still remember Donkey Wang?”
It’s 690 AD and the Chinese emperor has died. His widow is awaiting her coronation as the first empress of China, but not everyone in the court supports the idea of a lady on the throne. And then there’s the problem of her loyal subjects suddenly bursting into flames and burning to death. Empress Wu (Carina Lau) needs help figuring out who’s behind the immolation murders threatening to disrupt her impending inauguration and turns to Detective Dee (Andy Lau) for assistance. But first she’ll have to pardon him from prison where he’s spent the last eight years serving a sentence handed down by… Empress Wu.
What follows is a visual feast of high-flying action, vibrant colors, mystical underworlds, and CGI wonders. Oh, and maybe a talking stag or two. It’s the Chinese Sherlock Holmes movie you never knew you wanted. It’s Shanghai Holmes! No? Too far? How about this… it’s a fun mix of mystery, magic, and martial arts that wraps an interesting central story in a guise of pure entertainment.
Detective Dee marks somewhat of a comeback for both director Tsui Hark and star Andy Lau. Both men have seen the past few years filled with films that ranged from mediocre (Missing) to outright trash (Future X-Cops), but if their latest collaboration is any indication neither of them should be counted out just yet. Hark manages to capture a fine balance between epic wuxia and modern day mystery, and he does so with a sure-handed style he hasn’t shown in several years. And Lau returns to being a commanding presence onscreen in a role that exudes charm and ability. He stays loose and appealing throughout and still seems more than capable of handling many of the action scenes. This return to charisma bodes well for his upcoming remake of Mel Gibson’s What Women Want.
The Sherlock Holmes comparison above is accurate as both films share more than a bit in common. Aside from the surface detail of a great detective tasked with solving a vexing series of murders, they have a similar tone that touches briefly on darkness but remains light and loose overall. Characters move quickly through locations that mix stellar set design with a mixed bag of CGI enhancements, and the action beats stay more regular than that Indian grocery store employee from the FiberOne commercials. Two of the best set-pieces include a creepy trip through an underground black market called the Phantom Bazaar that turns into an ambush and a fight finale set inside a a giant statue of Buddha threatening to crumble at any moment. Fight choreography by Sammo Hung goes a long way towards making the vast amount of wire work palatable and immensely entertaining.
Dee has two assistants in lieu of a single Watson, and what they lack in Jude Lawesomeness they more than make up for with visual appeal and fighting skills. Pei (Chao Deng) is the albino head of the imperial guard who begins with a healthy mistrust towards Dee but soon comes to respect the man’s abilities and intent. But who is he really working for? Jing’er (Bingbing Li) is the empress’ right hand woman, and while it’s never stated as such I prefer to believe that means exactly what my mind wants it to mean. In addition to being gorgeous Jing’er is an extremely skilled warrior whose loyalty to Wu seems certain. But what is she hiding behind those stunningly beautiful eyes?
Relationships between characters are given time to develop amidst the brawls, escapes, and deer attacks, and they manage to shift and grow in some surprising ways. Friends and enemies alike have layers waiting to be peeled back to expose the truth. This happens most literally during a humorously staged attack on Dee and Jing’er after she’s shaved his prison beard and offered her services. She removes his pants, straddles him, and removes her own top just as a barrage of arrows begin to rip through the walls. Like much of the film it’s a fantastic blend of the comical and the exciting.
Detective Dee And the Mystery Of the Phantom Flame touches on the lessons of history and the role of rulers, but this is no serious drama. Instead it’s a fun and often thrilling period adventure that should entertain and enthrall fans of both the Mummy and Indiana Jones franchises (it leans closer to the latter) while at the same time drawing viewers into the world of wuxia films. Hopefully this marks a turning point for Hark and Lau and a return to quality entertainment from them both. If not? We’ll always have Bingbing.
The Upside: Plot constantly moving and evolving; spectacular action set-pieces; strong story behind the action; Bingbing Li is a beautiful woman with skills
The Downside: Wire-fu; lots of CGI