Tsui Hark’s career has only formally dipped into Western markets once or twice, his Once Upon a Time in China franchise being his biggest namesake. But on his own turf he’s double dipped Kung Fu into a buffet of subgenres: supernatural, historical, comedy, not to mention plenty of overlap. There are very few things Hark can’t squeeze some fun out of, but Detective Dee fits into a category that’s more frequently tied to the west: massive blockbuster. Pseudo-historical, slightly spooky, but infinitely Kung Fu (with choreography by the beloved Sammo Hung) do Dee’s massive CGI set pieces and explosively absurd fight scenarios create any competition for our biggest ‘busters back home? Namely Sherlock Holmes? Which I’m saying because I guess that’s the easiest reference point for a spectacle detective story?
The inauguration of the first Empress of China, Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), is mere days away, her grandest opportunity to show off her empire to the world. But just as the construction of a massive statue is finishing up outside her palace, two workers spontaneously combust into flames, sending paranoia throughout the people that there’s a dire curse looming over them. Desperate to find the culprit behind these bizarre crimes, Zetian turns to Detective Dee (Andy Lau), one of her biggest dissidents and harshest critics, released from prison for the purpose of solving this case. Teaming up with the Empress’ right hand woman (Li Bingbing) and a young albino official (Chao Deng), Dee embarks on a journey to find out how, why and who is causing folks to burn up from the inside, and just how inside that culprit may be.
One thing that has always irked me about the new Sherlock Holmes film was how anti-engaging the mystery side was. Certainly Guy Ritchie lets you accompany the antics along the way to the solution, but there was nothing really to follow, as in the end all the answers lay in magical Macguffin. Dee possesses quite a large Macguffin, but it isn’t the lifeline, and it reveals that card fairly early on to shift attention to other pressing revelations. When a movie is both action and mystery, it’s only natural that the aggressive Mr. Action will often overpower, robbing the mystery of its time and lunch money. That’s what was pretty grievous about Holmes, how Holmes was much more of a goofy smooth talker/brawler externally, where mystery solving seemed a more exclusive, internal process. Dee goes a slightly different route. Action definitely takes precedence in the matter, but the way the mystery lives out is a bit more fluid and open. It’s unlikely you’ll have put everything together by the end, but the movie is ambitious in shaking you up, laying out a world where lead players may have sinister secrets that don’t necessarily make them the culprit. The mystery is never inactive, even when the screen is full of punches and ninjas.
But enough talk, how about that action? One thing about Sammo Hung’s action style that audiences love is how playful it can be. From Ip Man to Kung Fu Hustle, Hung takes pleasure out of shuffling up fight scene variables, combining unconventional set pieces with even more unusual fight conditions. Because Dee is floating foot first into the realm of CGI, the skies became fairly unlimited. You’ll see our heroes fight puppet ninjas, roll-dodge away from arrow onslaughts, Dee takes on a troupe of magical deer and you can bet your buttons there’s a dramatic throw down inside that massive statue. The action is dedicated to keeping a pulse, keeping them moving and doing something different. My favourite sequence probably being the underground, over water, black market bout with a ninja ambush, where one by one we learn just how many absurd illusions and techniques these assailants have mastered, and how Dee, in all his wisdom, plans to deal with it.
Detective Dee has dreams of fighting with the best and biggest of summer hitters, and as for how it stacks up it certainly, no question, floors a lot of the biggest Western offerings. But it isn’t perfect, not by a long shot. There’s a queasiness to the pacing. While there are twists and turns in the story, there are also weird swan dives in the tone, and Dee often dances to-and-fro from a light-hearted shit disturber to a disturbed, remorseful witness of terrible acts. The effects are also inconsistent, mostly they’re as good as massive CGI things look in this day and age, but from time to time they appear to dip closer to Doctor Who circa five years ago. However, all that doesn’t scratch the good intentions. If you saw the poster, trailer, or even just felt flirted by the title Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, it’s a safe deduction you’ll get exactly the answers you’re hunting for.