Movie review revisited: ‘Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame’

By Anthony Crabtree, Guest Writer

In theaters

“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,” written by Kuo-fu Chen, Jialu Zhang and Lin Qianyu (novel), directed by Tsui Hark, 122 Minutes.

Tsui Hark is one of the best-known Chinese directors, yet according to the Internet Movie Database more Americans have seen his Van Damme-Dennis Rodman film “Double Team” than any of his other movies. Despite this, and his later Van Damme-Rob Schneider film “Knock-Off,” Hark has created groundbreaking films, including the first two installments in the “Once Upon a Time in China” franchise.

Yet he also has several marks against him with movies like “A Better Tomorrow III” and “Black Mask 2: City of Masks.” This fluctuation in quality makes it difficult to predict what you’ll get from a Tsui Hark film. In May, I watched and reviewed his latest effort, “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,” and was not pleased. When compared to other recent martial arts fare (“Gallants,” “Reign of Assassins,”) “Detective Dee” just didn’t live up.

With the recent theatrical release from Indomina, I decided to revisit “Detective Dee.” This second viewing was thankfully, and surprisingly, more pleasing.

The plot focuses on people spontaneously combusting and exiled Detective Dee (Andy Lau) trying to solve this mystery. All of this is happening around the time of the coronation ceremony of the first Empress of China. Needless to say these two events are most definitely connected.

From the start, it’s clear that this film is aiming to distinguish itself from most martial arts movies with its bizarre plot. Spontaneous combustion is an idea that is almost too far “out there” to be taken seriously. This, along with a talking deer in the film, makes it clear that the movie wants to approach fantastical subject matter in a serious way. The film has few jokes and plays everything quite straight.

In certain ways this balance between walking a straight line and creating a piece of camp does work. Lau, while not given anything challenging, is serviceable as Dee and has a silent charisma that, as a detective, lets us know that his mind is working. His silence speaks volumes, yet the real strength in the acting department comes from Bingbing Li and Chao Deng. Both aid Dee in his search for answers, and these two actors create characters that take each incident so seriously, that you can’t help but get sucked in. There is an honesty that these two bring that turn a campy situation into an earnest and entertaining moment.

A downside to “Detective Dee” is that some of the visual effects do not work. The large Buddha that is being built for the coronation looks fantastic and the scenery effects look great. Yet, the attempt at a talking deer fails. The deer appears twice, and unfortunately both times it comes off as goofy. Andy Lau talking to the deer comes off even goofier. Andy Lau kicking the deer, however, is priceless.

The one major regret that I have from my first comments on “Detective Dee” is the mention of poor fight choreography. Sammo Hung does an adequate job as fight choreographer, but the scenes in this film are not the most exciting and they pale in comparison to what is found in “True Legend” or “Ip Man 2.” The action is slower and not as prominent, but they are not as boring as I initially commented.

This film is not as good as other Hong Kong films from 2010, but it does have some merit. It is Tsui Hark’s attempt to create something that has been missing from cinema for quite awhile. It is a film where there is a combination of fantasy, action, mystery and basically every genre under the sun and it is all done with a grand style. While “Detective Dee” does succeed, “Gallants” does all of this a lot better, but on a smaller scale. Without comparing this film to other, better, Hong Kong movies, “Detective Dee” is enjoyable.

Re-Grade: B-

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