It must be my month for massively monikered movies – after two tremendously lengthy anime titles comes Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame – out on DVD and Blu-ray, courtesy of the rather wonderful folks at Cine Asia.
Based on a real life court official of some note during the Tang dynasty, one Di Renjie, Detective Dee is based on a book of the same name by Lin Qianyu and marks a triumphant return to form for Tsui Hark – out-grossing Inception at the Asian box-office and receiving commendable critiques from much better reviewers than I...
Set in AD 690, shortly before the controversial inauguration of China’s very first Empress, Wu Zetian, Detective Dee opens with a Western diplomat being shown around the construction of a statue of the future Empress, built to rival the Colossus of Rhodes. The entire nation is on high alert, thanks to rival political factions objecting to a woman’s right to rule and so, when a senior official leading the tour bursts into flames at the top of the statue in spectacular fashion – shortly followed by the official sent to investigate the death first – foul play is suspected. Wu Zetian, sensing that these attacks are part of a conspiracy to unseat her, sends for the one man who has the analytical and forensic skill to solve the murders – Detective Dee.
Unfortunately, Dee is currently languishing in the state’s worst hell-hole as penance for also challenging Zetian’s right to rule several years back and, by the time the future Empress’s right hand woman arrives to release him, the faction behind the attack are already there, determined to stop his investigation before it can even begin. So it is that Detective Dee is thrust back into a world of bluff, intrigue and power-play as he must use every ounce of his legendary cunning to solve this most bizarre of mysteries...
Essayed by Andy Lau [after Jet Li was unable to commit to the role], Detective Dee is a prototypical Indiana Jones of a character - as at ease in the presence of majesty as he is with the subterranean scum who dwell below ground, he is also as good a brawler as he is a sleuth. Lau plays him with a perfect balance of prowess and humility in what is certainly the best I’ve seen him inhabit for some time now.
Everyone’s favourite big brother, Sammo Hung, handles the action choreography with his usual verve and flair – complex weapon work and hand to hand combat is enhanced with over the top, Hong Kong styled wirework which sees the protagonists leap unfeasible distances – jarring in today’s Thai influenced ‘real,’ bone-crunching martial arts stunt scenes, but totally in keeping with the quasi-fantastic realm in which Dee inhabits. His foes range from Ninjas to some averagely rendered CG deer and battles rage in vertiginous statues and urban settings alike – allowing Sammo and Tsui to craft some properly outlandish action that harks back to the golden years of HK cinema.
A genuinely spectacular action adventure that never falls prey to the more tiresome clichés which seem to hold Hollywood in a thrall, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is one of those rare and perfectly pitched actioners that you can’t say a bad word about without seeming churlish and picky... a spot on rollercoaster ride of invention, spectacle, fights and intrigue – brilliant.
8/10 - NeMo Mk2
We have FIVE copies of the Blu-ray version of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame to giveaway.