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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame | Review

Kung Foo, Scooby Doo

Talking deer, acupuncture catalyzing transfiguration, and sunlight induced spontaneous combustion are just a few of the flourishes in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame , a martial arts fantasy extravaganza featuring a Sherlock Holmes arc dipped in Scooby Doo fabrications, attempting, as well, to be, (gasp) historical commentary. Detective Dee is a popular literary character based on a Chinese folk hero, Di Renjie, aka Judge Dee, who in turn, has been popularized in the West in a series of novels by Robert Van Gulik. Director Tsui Hark, a key figure (director and producer) from martial arts cinema of the 1980’s and 1990’s, is back with what’s being touted as his first certifiable hit in years, and one can see why, in this adventure epic that attempts to have something for everyone. But sometimes, having something for everyone results in numbing excessiveness.

Set during the Tang Dynasty in 689 A.D., on the eve of the coronation of China’s first female leader, Empress Wu (Carina Lau), a government official spontaneously bursts into flames while working in a gargantuan Buddha monument, just about set for completion in honor of the coronation. An officer from the Supreme Court (who also happens to be albino) suspects murder, but when a second official also burns spontaneously, popular opinion sides with the head architect, who seems to think that the mysterious flame is the result of having disturbed cursed amulets in the Buddha monument. Empress Wu (a Regent usurping the thrown) has many malefactors upset with her ascension to the thrown, because she is a woman and also because there seems to be some suspicion as to how the former Emperor really died. Rumor has it that the Empress poisoned him. Consulting with her spiritual advisor (who is on Spiritual Sabbatical, so he must visit her in the form of a talking deer, an early form of teleworking from home) the Empress is advised to release Detective Dee (Andy Lau), the only man who can solve the case. Dee has been in prison for eight years for treason, as a result of opposing the ascension of Empress Wu, and Wu sends her beloved guard, Shangguan Jing’er (Bingbing Li) to fetch him. And immediately arrows start flying, legs start kicking, and a rather serpentine mystery ensues, where we meet an underground herbalist, Dr. Donkey Wang (yes, it’s supposed to sound like that), a herd of murderous deer, and a serious mix of plot twists and fight scenes that will have your head spinning.

While Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame may be one of the most visually provocative films of the year (a scene of the crumbling statue’s Buddha face careening off into the debris of the temple is stunning, to say the least) it certainly is also one of the most nonsensical. At times, it’s just plain old convoluted and could have easily had about 20-30 minutes cut from the running time. The action sequences are almost all first rate, featuring some pretty nicely edited and orchestrated scenes, especially those featuring the whip yielding Bingbing Lai.

Some of the CGI looks first rate, while some scenes, especially several where characters burst into flames, look downright shoddy. The worst looking sequence of all involves a herd of deer attacking Dee, (not unlike those equally awful looking ones menacing Naomi Watts in The Ring Two, 2005) looking like sprightly cartoons as they charge him. Andy Lau is alright in the starring role, however, his performance is hampered by the tone of the film. While it’s evident that Detective Dee is a light-hearted adventure, it feels like the film would have been better served to be more silly than it already is. There is a character named Donkey Wang, after all. Flourishes like that feel underutilized. The Empress Wu’s depiction is interesting. Her hairpieces are the most awesomely elaborate I’ve seen since Ona Munson in The Shanghai Gesture (1941). Detective Dee takes great pains to get her to admit that her nefarious actions to ascend to the throne were not legal. However, her actions were not anything alien to her male predecessors, and perhaps you’ll think of Working Girl’s (1988) Melanie Griffith when she tells Philip Bosco that when you’re a woman in her position, you can’t follow the rules to get to the top. All in all, Detective Dee is a sweet little cotton candy confection—but certain parts might stick to your teeth.

Rating 2.5 stars

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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