Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame Review


Hold on to your hats, folks. Detective Dee is in town. Part mystical Western, part kung fu epic, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is either the most glorious send-up of Asian action films or the most over-the-top foreign film I’ve ever seen. Regardless of which it is, I had an absolute blast. The film is a wild ride from start to finish, despite never quite reaching the same levels of blood and violence as 13 Assassins. Instead, it more resembles Sherlock Holmes (with Unforgiven undertones). Detective Dee himself is a great hero. He has some interesting and somewhat entertaining sidekicks. But best of all are the worlds created by director Hark Tsui, which feature some of the grandest and most interesting set design I’ve seen in some time and allow the action choreographers to really go bananas.

In seventh-century China, the empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is ready, willing, and able to become the empire’s first female leader. Her first unofficial decree is that a massive Buddha statue be built and prepared in time for her coronation, and though the construction is on schedule, tensions at the site are high. A truly bizarre and horrifying incident, however, throws everything for a loop. The project leader mysteriously bursts into flames and dies, and no one can quite seem to figure out why. Is someone poisoning the water at the site? Or could it have something to do with some sacred scrolls that were removed from the base of the tower? It seems as if the latter is the case when another inspector bursts into flames, and with so much at stake, the empress decides to call in Detective Dee (Andy Lau). Imprisoned eight years ago for acts against the empress, Dee has the sharpest mind in all of China, and if anyone is to solve this mystery, it’s him. So the two put their differences aside, and with the aide of two state officials—Jing’er (Li Bing Bing) and Donglai (Chao Deng)—Dee puts his badge back on once more.

The mystery aspects of the film are a bit underwhelming. The set-up is brilliant; How can you not appreciate the audacity it takes to just randomly set a couple guys on fire? But there’s no way the answer to the riddle can satisfying, and of course, films like this require a tidy bow on any and all solutions. Thankfully, neither the director nor the screenwriters ever explain why these men and women can fly through the air or literally transform into someone else or why there’s a clairvoyant deer that can also speak to people. Details like that make a film, and poor or unnecessary explanations can break it. Detective Dee walks a fine line of giving us what we want while withholding that which could spoil some of the film’s silly charm.

But putting the mystery aside for a second, where Detective Dee really succeeds is in the realm of action. Our three protagonists each have their own signature weapon, and they aren’t afraid to use them. Dee’s is some kind of metal stick that indicates to him where the weakest point on any object is. One quick hit to that spot can shatter just about anything (or anyone). Meanwhile, Donglai is a master with the ax, and Jing’er can crack a mean whip. Seeing some of the things they do with these objects is a real treat, but nothing compares to the way the film uses this enormous Buddha statue. I can’t even begin to describe how large it’s made out to be, and watching Dee and company jump from platform to platform, swing from rope to rope, was glorious to behold.

As with a lot of films of this nature, the acting isn’t anything to write home about. To be fair, Andy Lau is pretty solid as Dee. He keeps his emotions to himself for the most part, giving him a kind of secretive air. You never really know what Dee is thinking, so when he deduces something and shares his opinion, you’re almost certain he’s right. Why else would he choose that moment to speak out? The rest of the cast puts it all out there, making them significantly less interesting. Li Bing Bing and Chao Deng are good battle sidekicks, but they can’t really make you care about their characters much. Tony Leung has a smaller role as an old ally of Detective Dee’s but he’s in too little of the film to make a strong impression.

Fans of Bruce Lee and other old-school, Hong Kong-style action stars will likely love Detective Dee, and there’s no reason (besides the subtitles) why your average American audience shouldn’t enjoy it, too. It’s got the scope of a big Hollywood blockbuster, but it was done (quite noticeably at times) on a smaller budget, and the actors aren’t exactly big, recognizable names. But the film is in so many ways what Sherlock Holmes should have been: An over-the-top romp that puts action front and center, and though that’s not always my cup of tea, it’s a very refreshing antidote to the endless train of holiday Oscar fare.

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