Movie #47: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

I debated not including this movie in my summer 50, because it’s so different (especially if you’re not used to this genre of quasi-historical Chinese martial arts fantasy epic adventure movie). However, the more I thought about it, the more Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame actually reminded me of a much more mainstream movie: the recent reboot of Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (but not the disappointing sequel). Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau stars as the semi-legendary Detective Dee, who is released from imprisonment for rebelling against the Empress Wu, in order to investigate a serious of mysterious deaths where the victims spontaneously burst into flames. Like Holmes, there are a number of clues that viewers really have no hope of deciphering (and frankly, a lot of the conclusions made are pretty confusing) but they lead the investigator from one action sequence to the next. Similar to director Guy Ritchie’s style, this movie also has a lot of camera tricks and quick pans and zooms that add a bit of modern slickness to a period story. The director of this movie is none other than famed martial arts choreographer Tsui Hark, and his action scenes are usually a treat in inventiveness (though the stunts in this movie are designed by another famous name in these circles: Sammo Hung). After watching another one of Tsui’s movies (called The Seven Swords) at the Toronto International Film Festival a number of years ago, I have never really appreciated him as a director. Though he has a good sense of the spectacular when it comes to fights, the rest of the story kind of goes over the top and makes only loose sense. There is definitely very little of that realism that keeps even fantastical martial arts movies like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and House of the Flying Daggers a bit more grounded. Here we’ve got stuff that’s pretty bananas: on top of that human combustion, there’s also individuals who can transfigure their own appearances, as well as speak through “magical” deer. I guess the end result of this kind of weirdness is that it makes it easier to accept the super-stunts where pretty much everyone can leap really high and run on walls, throw things with perfect accuracy and dodge everything from flying knives to large tree-sized logs being shot out of the water. This movie’s scale also required a lot more CGI than your average kung fu epic. The Empress has commissioned a giant statue of the buddha for her coronation and that’s really the site of most of the story. The aerial scenes where we see this statue and the surrounding city look quite impressive (though a little too good to be real). The acting, as you might expect, is never subtle either. The cartoonishness of most of the dialogue unfortunately keeps this movie a little on the B-movie side (despite its scale and scope). Nevertheless, it’s a fun bit of matinee cinema that I hope will lead to a “Detective Dee” franchise. Maybe next time they can polish those production values a little more and make it a crossover (aka international) hit as well (3.5 out of 5).

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