Sherlock Holmes-style sleuthing takes florid martial arts form in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, a CG-steeped period-piece fantasy that weds whodunit drama and punch-and-kick mayhem. Tsui Hark's latest has an over-the-top digitized aesthetic that's in keeping with its wire work-enabled combat, all of which is employed in service of 689 A.D. intrigue set on the eve of the royal coronation of Empress Wu (Carina Lau), destined to become the first female ruler of China unless she's murdered first. That threat becomes manifest when, one after the other, her high-ranking officials begin bursting into flames, a baffling scenario that may be related to the construction of a towering 66-yard-high Buddha statue right in front of the palace, and compels the Empress Wu (herself one of numerous suspects) to enlist the services of Detective Dee (Andy Lau), a master investigator whom the Empress imprisoned eight years earlier for leading a rebellion. His subsequent inquiry into these strange goings-on is a goofy tale of outlandish creatures, extravagant centerpieces, crazed aesthetics and insanely convoluted deception and scheming—one that should satisfy genre aficionados, but is less likely to entice the mainstream moviegoers.
Working with famed fight choreographer Sammo Hung, Hark crowds his film with hectic skirmishes, the finest involving Dee, his chaperone/partner Jing'er (Bingbing Li), and an albino accomplice teaming up to battle a masked villain in an underground cavern, a sequence that features not only the clever use of projectile logs but also the baddie's flowing red robe turning sentient and, at one point, giving birth to a mechanized puppet warrior. Such strangeness is a constant facet of Detective Dee, which overflows with flying arrow attacks, deadly beetles, talking animals and other outlandish flourishes highlighted by a computerized close-up of the centipede-munching Dr. Donkey Wang (Richard Ng) as his face transforms into another. Deliberately cheesy effects incessantly crowd the frame, and if the material never consistently boasts the stupendous martial-arts feats found in Ip Man or the out-and-out gonzo mysticism of True Legend, Hark's direction is sleek and muscular, and his camera's acrobatics provide thrilling verve even when Hung's choreography—characterized by familiar but often-inventive use of blades, whips, ropes, platforms and other assorted accessories—proves a tad shy of awe-inspiring.
Given the sensory-overload cacophony of the proceedings, performances are more about bold comportment and swift physicality than nuance or depth, and in that regard, Lau is suitably commanding as the supremely cool, confident and canny Detective Dee. That his fellow castmates' turns are competent without being quite as memorable is more than a little frustrating, as is the fact that Zhang Jialu's script raises thorny issues of class and gender dynamics—the latter found in the Empress' guiding belief that her opposition is driven solely by sexism—and then more or less discards them in favor of ornately rendered weirdness. That said, there are giddy pleasures to be had from this uninhibited explosion of color, bloodshed and spontaneous combustion, which both in terms of action and intricate guess-the-traitor plotting, is primarily concerned with piling tumult upon commotion upon chaos in the belief that more is always better. That messiness may ultimately render Detective Dee occasionally too cluttered for its own good. Yet Hark's epic nonetheless delivers a deluge of memorable moments, from a clash in the impressively grand interior of the Buddha tower (propped up by an enormous column decorated with superstition-enshrouded amulets), to a titanic face-off between Dee and the Empress' rebel-assassinating Chaplain that takes on a beautifully undulating, hallucinatory quality after, in the film's signature sight, Dee goes toe to toe with a horde of rampaging magical deer.
Distributor: Indomina Releasing
Cast: Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka-fai
Director: Tsui Hark
Screenwriter: Zhang Jialu
Producers: Peggy Lee, Wang Zhonglei, Tsui Hark
Genre: Martial Arts
Rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and some sexuality.
Running time: 122 min.
Release date: September 2 NY/LA, September 9 ltd.