Film: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
UK Release date: Out now
Running time: 119 mins
Director: Tsui Hark
Starring: Andy Lau, Carina Lau Ka Ling, Lee Bing bing, Deng Chao, Tony Leung Ka Fai
Studio: Cine Asia
He said: Judge Dee, or plain Dee to his friends, is China's answer to Sherlock Holmes, and has been immortalized in both the East and West for decades in several novels and TV outings, though I have to admit, I don’t read that much and this is the first I've heard of him. As for veteran Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, now there is a name I’m familiar with, though not so much in the last decade or so it has to be said - does any of this bode well?
She said: 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…
He said: Tsui teams up with screenwriter/producer Chen Kuo Fu (The Message, Double Vision) to bring the legendary detective to the big screen for the first time in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, not the catchiest of film titles I’m sure you’ll agree. Mixing fantasy, adventure and period styling, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame lights up the screen with raw enthusiasm and incinerates all that stands before it. Probably.
She said: 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.
He said: All round superstar Andy Lau plays the iconic detective, pulled out of imprisonment to solve a series of murders with the help of Li Bing Bing (The Message), Deng Chao (Equation of Love and Death), and Tony Leung Ka Fai. Carina Lau stars as the almighty Empress Wu, and the spectacular action sequences are choreographed by action legend Sammo Hung. Detective Dee is an old-school Hong Kong production through and through, not to mention one of Tsui's biggest box office hits to date.
She said: 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.
He said: The action choreography is fast flowing and vibrant, it’s certainly not Sammo Hung’s best work, but it entertains in all the right ways. Besides, he’s not working with Donnie Yen here, even though Andy Lau more than holds his own against a variety of CGI assisted assassins and beasties.
She said: 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.
He said: Anyone accustomed to detective thrillers will probably find the outcome obvious, it’s really not that hard to figure out, but Tsui does throw in a few red herrings along the way, not to mention a talking deer that really doesn’t feel out of place at all. Upon reflection, it seems quite odd that the townsfolk are willing to believe in talking animals and flying detectives but not spontaneous combustion, but hey, that’s why they call it fantasy filmmaking, right?
She said: 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.
He said: Performances are strong, even though there is very little time for character development. Carina Lau is the standout as Empress Wu, but Andy Lau makes for an imposing figure and lets face it, sometimes charisma is really all you need to get by. He really doesn’t have enough time for anything else - such is the speed at which the movie unfolds.
She said: 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.
He said: There are plenty of holes but it’s nice to see Tsui Hark rediscovering some of his early style and verve. Detective Dee feels both traditional and modern at the same time, presenting us with a fresh spin on the detective genre. Hong Kong fantasy cinema has been missing something of late, welcome back Tsui Hark - it’s been a long time coming.
She said: 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.