Review: Tsui Hark's Detective Dee & The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame (Fantasia 2011)

Tsui Hark's Detective Dee & The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame (Fantasia 2011)
6 10

PLOT: When a series of strange, supernatural deaths start occurring close to the inauguration of Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), she sends for the imprisoned Detective Dee (Andy Lau)- a former official who was sent into exile for eight years after he opposed her rule.

REVIEW: When I was in my late teens/early twenties, I went through a hardcore Hong Kong action movie phase. I studied martial arts, and I devoured every subbed or dubbed (preferably subbed) action flick I could get my hands on. Next to John Woo and Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark was my favorite Hong Kong director, with him having either helmed (LOVE & DEATH IN SAIGON, THE BLADE, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 1, 2, & 3, PEKING OPERA BLUES) or produced (A BETTER TOMORROW, THE KILLER, IRON MONKEY) most of my favorites.

Sadly, around the time of the Hong Kong hand over to China, Hark's career went amuck after an aborted phase in the U.S (which consisted of two awful Van Damme flicks, DOUBLE TEAM & KNOCK-OFF, as well as BLACK MASK 2: CITY OF ANGELS). His last really good film is arguably TIME & TIDE from 2000 (although I've yet to see SEVEN SWORDS), but since then it's been slim pickings.

After riding the festival wave and doing blockbuster business in China, I hoped DETECTIVE DEE would be Hark's comeback film, especially as it teamed him with the great Andy Lau (star of the amazing INFERNAL AFFAIRS and FULL-TIME KILLER), and boasted fight scenes choreographed by Sammo Hung. While DETECTIVE DEE is certainly better than THE LEGEND OF ZU, or some of Hark's other, more recent films, it's not quite the game-changer some have hailed it as.

In many ways, it seems like a Chinese imitation of SHERLOCK HOLMES, with Detective Dee, who, in China, is famous like Holmes, being changed from an elderly man into a dynamic, kung-fu fighting Andy Lau- complete with a sexy female sidekick (played by the whip-wielding Li Bingbing).

At times, DETECTIVE DEE comes close to the greatness of Hark's other films, with a standout being Dee's early jailhouse escape, which seems him evading a team of killers while faking blindness, and shackled to an old man. From there though, the film never really gels, even though Lau is superb.

Hung's fight scenes are fine, despite being heavily aided by wire-work, but some of them, including a climatic horseback battle seemed too dependent on CGI. The mystery itself is fairly intriguing, and Dee's explanation of why people are spontaneously bursting into flames is ingenious, but the film couldn't help but feel a little cold to me- where Hark's early films were warm and full of emotion.

All of this kept me from enjoying DEE as much as I hoped I would, but at the same time, it's still worthwhile and a step in the right direction for Hark. It has enough Hark wackiness (including a talking cow, who speaks in proverbs) and action to make for a solid two hours of entertainment. It`s also a great, potential franchise character for the super-charismatic Lau (kind of the Asian Tom Cruise), and I wouldn`t be against seeing another DETECTIVE DEE.



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