Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Genre: Foreign, Action, Crime/Mystery
Opens locally in limited release, Friday September 23rd, 2011
Run Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Bingbing LI, Chao Deng
Directed by Tsui Hark (Seven Swords, Once Upon a Time in China)
From Hong Kong legendary director Tsui Hark, comes a movie you've probably never heard of, with a title that sounds like a Nancy Drew or Encyclopedia Brown detective novel. "Detective Dee" is a character based on an actual person in Chinese history, Di Renjie, a household name in China made popular in the West by author Robert van Gulik in his mystery series "Judge Dee." Di Renjie was a Tang Dynasty official, and a very famous prime minister in 7th century China, who served under the only female king in Chinese history, Empress Wu. If you've never heard of any of that, just think of Detective Dee as a 7th century Chinese version of Sherlock Holmes, and think of "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" as a 2-hour long, Chinese episode of Scooby-Doo.
As the title implies, the story revolves around Detective Dee (Andy Lau), who at the beginning of the film is in exile. A giant monument is being built in honor of Empress Wu (Carina Lau,) the female king (queen?) of ancient China. Mysteriously, a general becomes inflicted with a condition where he literally catches fire, bursts into flames, and is reduced to ashes. As this phenomenon occurs again and again, it threatens to interfere with Empress Wu's inauguration celebration. Detective Dee is pulled from exile to get to the bottom of the mysterious string of deaths.
It is quite a feat to overcome the Chinese style of movie-making made popular in the West most recently with films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or "House of Flying Daggers," where men can jump and hang in the air, or defy gravity altogether. I was hoping for more of a visually stunning movie, such as the beautiful 2004 film "Hero" that also came out of Hong Kong/China. I'm guessing "Detective Dee" wasn't made on much of a budget, as it lacks the drama of "Crouching Tiger," or the fun choreograph of "Flying Daggers." Instead, we get messy and confusing action sequences meshed with horribly bad CG effects that are more in line with cheese like "Big Trouble in Little China."
Still, the mystery unfolds like you would expect one to, and I found myself interested in finding out about the mysterious flaming murders. As any murder-myster goes, we are introduced to several characters, who at different times seem like the prime suspect. Of course, the actual villain is the least likely candidate, and when confronted this person explains his/her motives just like someone would to Shaggy, Scooby, and the gang.
For those familiar with Chinese cinema, "Detective Dee" will not be remembered as one of the greatest imports in recent years. For those with no knowledge of Judge Dee or Di Renjie, or with no reference point in which to compare, "Detective Dee" will fall flat as a hokey, cheesy and under-produced film that seems to overstay it's welcome.
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