Thursday, 30 June 2011


Film: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
UK Release date: Out now
Certificate: 15
Running time: 119 mins
Director: Tsui Hark
Starring: Andy Lau, Carina Lau Ka Ling, Lee Bing bing, Deng Chao, Tony Leung Ka Fai
Genre: Crime/Action/Fantasy
Studio: Cine Asia
Format: DVD
Country: China
Reviewer: Daryl Wing

In most cases, a film in the whodunit genre suffers second time round for obvious reasons – the outcome is no longer a riddle, no matter how unfathomable previously, while its twists and turns lack the thrill of the chase on repeat viewings. Therefore, it’s welcome relief that Director Tsui Hark (Once Upon A Time in China) has teamed up with writer Chen Kuo Fu (The Message, Double Vision) and choreographer Sammo Hung to add some much needed action to proceedings. But will the interesting premise of a detective story crossed with a historical actioner set during the Tang dynasty bring the audience back for more?

A series of mysterious murders involving internal combustion is seemingly going to prevent the inauguration of China's first Empress (Carina Lau). She is forced to seek help from Detective Dee (Andy Lau), renowned as the greatest investigative mind and Kung Fu Master of his generation.

Bringing him back from exile to embark on a manhunt, the reluctant Dee is helped by Wu’s loyal aide (Li Bingbing), and it isn’t long before their progress is hindered by fire beetles, creepy assassins and double-crossers, who will all go to murderous lengths to stop the coronation and destroy the empire once and for all…

With a tepid opening, including laughable attempts to set people on fire using computer generated images (it doesn’t bode well), Detective Dee is initially a bit of a struggle. Hindered further by obvious wire-work throughout and a rugged hero you would normally see sitting beneath a cashpoint in town begging for change, it’s difficult to see where the entertainment is going to come from.

It’s also hard to decide whether or not the plentiful use of CGI here is necessary. Sure, the landscapes and backdrops are dazzling, and they sit nicely with the style of the film, but at times it feels a little bit too artificial, as if we’re watching a detective story more akin to Scooby Doo rather than Sherlock Holmes. The underground city, with its ghostly villains, is the only exception, with a spooky setting that works well and manages to send a shiver or two down the spine. However, with a plot struggling to make sense of suspicions and internecine strife, it’s a relief when the action takes over and we’re catapulted into a fantasy fight-fest.

Choreographed by Hong Kong maestro Sammo Hung, the action is inventive and exhilarating for the most part, whether Dee is battling against the feisty Jinger (the film’s highlight), sparring with super-villains or dueling with a yakking deer. The latter, despite its weirdness, somehow doesn’t sit out of place, and actually offers some edge-of-the-seat entertainment when it finally kicks off. The wire-work still grates at times, but with scenes so swift and energetic, it’s hard not to get sucked into such a bizarre world; its lengthy running time barely noticeable thanks to the plot’s cracking pace.

With Tsui Hark needing to rediscover some of his early style and verve it was unlikely that his impressive cast was ever going to let him down. Having said that, they barely get a chance to endear themselves to the audience because characterization and development is ditched in favour of a speedy storyline, allowing little time to breath with set-piece after set-piece unleashed on the giddy audience. Lau will please most, especially post-shave, but at times he does seem to be strolling, longing for a meatier role, and it would’ve been more interesting to see him continue with his Jack Sparrow impersonation, rather than a fancy-footed Jack Bauer.

Western audiences will probably lap this up, and will no doubt enjoy the tongue-in-cheek vibe that complements the frenetic action, especially when Dee explores the darkly sinister netherworld during the second act, devouring its delicious villains engineering outrageous methods to inflict damage on Dee’s quest. The soundtrack more than matches the look of a film that somehow comes at a fraction of the cost of a Hollywood blockbuster and yet still feels like one.

Tsui Hark keeps the film quirky and engaging thanks to a beautiful visual sense filled with unexpected, for its genre, poetic touches and costumes straight out of a fairy tale. The whodunit may be predictable (it certainly won’t tax the brain) but it’s also ultimately pointless, and in that sense Detective Dee surprises – you won’t be bothered in the slightest as the mask is whipped from our antagonist’s noggin - you’ll just be relishing another body-busting battle instead.

Add to that the welcome twists in the final act, with the auteur embracing his “to achieve greatness, everyone is expendable” line by making sure we understand that no-one (almost) is safe, and you’ll soon forgive, or even forget, the slow opening with its poor effects and lazily sped-up rooftop action.

Detective Dee abandons the mystery its audience may expect and replaces it with gorgeous visuals, breathtaking action sequences and a few quirky touches that transform this slow-starter into a satisfying actioner worthy of your attention.

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