2.5 stars out of 5
Just as Guy Ritchie recently updated Sherlock Holmes with a physicality and fighting prowess, not to mention penchant for the ladies, that would have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rolling in his grave, Tsui Hark has updated the Detective Dee fables with his own unmistakeable touch.
The real Dee, a noted Tang Dynasty official named Di Renjie, was a chancellor for the only female ruler of China, Wu Zetian, during the turn of the eight century.
While known for his intelligence and competence, his apparent deductive prowess was established and popularised in works of fiction that culminate in this prospective film franchise.
Here, Dee and Wu are both portrayed younger than history recorded during this particular period of time, as the dynasty prepares for the controversial coronation of Wu, giving Andy Lau and Carina Lau respectively nice juicy roles.
Whenever Tsui is at the helm, you know visual effects and elaborate action-packed set pieces are going to feature prominently, sometimes at the expense of storytelling and characterisation. That proves to be the case for Detective Dee, which starts off with great promise but bogs down and peters out by the third act.
The story begins with the mysterious case of apparent spontaneous combustion that takes the life of a royal subject overseeing the construction of a giant Buddha statue near the imperial palace to mark the coronation.
The startling death is investigated by two forensic detectives of the day – shades of CSI here – who debate foul play and what mysterious substance could cause such a demise. Then one of them is subsequently killed the very same way.
Imprisoned and exiled former court official Dee, convicted of treason for opposing Wu’s rise to power, is summoned for his superior deductive skills, and he proceeds, with two sidekicks foisted upon him, to sift through the layers obscuring the truth – ruffling feathers and kicking butt in the process.
It should surprise no one in the audience that the Dee here would be one blessed with excellent martial arts skills, to go along with charm, bravery and a disregard for authority. (It would have been a waste to have Andy Lau playing a retirement-aged official, as the real Di was during this period, who was merely a great civil servant without any fight scenes.)
Taking liberties is fine, for the average movie fan at least, so long as it serves the entertainment imperative of this picture.
To that end, the casting for this film works reasonably well. Lau is eminently watchable in the lead role and his namesake Carina was a good choice for Wu. It was a pity then that icy-cool Li Bingbing (Triple Tap), as the Empress’ closest aide sent to assist and monitor Dee, isn’t given enough to do as Dee’s adversarial love-hate interest.
Tony Leung Ka Fai also has a small, but pivotal, role as a former associate of Dee’s who similarly opposed the Wu regime, and hence an initial suspect of the mystery deaths, but now works as a supervisor on the Buddha project.
The highlights of the film, for me, occurred when the zaniness I expect out of any Tsui Hark picture surfaced. There was one see-it-to-believe-it scene of a talking deer – the Empress’ spiritual advisor is thought to have been a shape-shifter – and one other remarkable sequence, a disaster scenario of epic proportions.
But the action, for the most part, is little better than adequate – strange considering action veteran Sammo Hung was fight choreographer – and some special-effects shots, such as those of unlucky victims catching fire and dying in agony, are indulgently repeated in slow motion way too many times.
Despite some bright spots, mainly involving the two Laus and Li, this is an underwhelming whodunit dressed up in dynastic garb that desperately seeks credibility and impact with every twist and development, but often comes up short.
It’s likely that the audience figures it out what’s going on long before the onscreen developments can catch up. It’s rather elementary that way.
About Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.