Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) dir. by Tsui Hark
Starring Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Li Bingbing and Tony Leung Ka-fai
By Blair Stewart
A timely response to Guy Richie's recently daft "Sherlock Holmes", Tsui Hark's long-gestating "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" fancies a Tang-Zhou Dynasty court official as that of a wuxia ass-whupping crimestopper.
Di Renjie was a 600 A.D. chancellor during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian whose pluck in matters of political stratagem were such that centuries later he has reemerged as the imperial gumshoe in a mystery novel/film adaptation fighting against the status quo and the supernatural. And by supernatural I refer to our hero drop-kicking a pack of CGI-talking deer. As one would.
The coronation of Wu (Carina Lau) as China's sovereign comes fast as a towering Buddha is being erected to honour her but a rash of self-combustions amongst her lackeys forces the Empress's release of Dee (Andy Lau) to crack a case tied to her own hubris. Tailing the erstwhile revolutionary Dee is Wu's loyal right-hand, the fetching Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bingbing), and together they join forces with albino policemen and syphilic dwarf witch-doctors to solve the riddle. From the plot synopsis I digress that most Mandarin folk tales were conceived by monks and poets on epic opium binges the night before their telling.
Using his powers of deduction, foresight and body blows, Dee goes high in the Imperial Court and low in the underworld bartering caves to figure out why Wu loyalists are turning to ash. Andy Lau makes for a charming rogue in the lead; his spiky beard twitching in the company of his unscrupulous royal bailbondsman. It would be a geek pleasure to see Lau's Dee bounce ideas off of Poirot and Holmes, but that's a crossover for another day. There's a good cast in "Dee" mostly buried under silly costumes with Carina Lau's Empress showing interesting shades of grey in her role and Tony Leung's most welcome inscrutable mug in a small appearance.
Despite their work the fundamentals of a good film are often ignored in "Dee" to make room for some lousy f.x., creaky plot machinations and wan fight scenes. This latter problem exists despite the presence of wire-fu choreography by Sammo Hung and the director being, you know, Tsui Hark of "Once Upon A Time in China" and "Time and Tide" action acclaim. Too many damn computer effects and quick-cuttings I say, not enough in-camera tricks and long takes.
Along with these qualms I was also bothered by the obvious digital look of the film that often took me right out of the story (a similar problem I had with Gibson's "Apocalypto"), and the same nagging sense from the revealed theme late in the story as I had watching Zhang Yimou's 2002 "Hero" for the first time: Sacrifice yourself for the good of the people, a unified country is most important for the people, and sometimes those people need a ruthless leader. Somehow I don't think this film would have been made with yuans paying the budget if it had been called "Detective Dee vs. the 1000 Corrupt Party Members".
A promising Asian compliment to "Harry Potter" mysticism and "Indiana Jones" daring-do is stunted by these flaws, but perhaps success will iron out those kinks in Dee's future Detective adventures. Mind the flying unconscious deer.