I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

tn_detectivedeeDETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME is the latest directorial work from Mr. Tsui Hark. Yeah, admittedly I still mainly love him for the Van Damme/Rodman/Rourke picture DOUBLE TEAM, but he’s actually a respectable director too. This was nominated for best picture in last year’s Hong Kong Film Awards. It lost to GALLANTS but #1 I personally liked this better than GALLANTS and #2 Tsui won best director anyway. Like Soderbergh over Ridley Scott. Take that, GALLANTS.

DETECTIVE DEE is playing in American theaters now so check it out, but it’s also come out on legit UK blu-ray so that’s how I saw it.

mp_detectivedeeThis is kind of a more popcorn take on the Chinese historical epic. It takes place before the coronation of Empress Wu (Carina Lau), China’s only female emperor. Preparations are underway for a huge to-do, most notably the construction of a Statue of Liberty sized Buddha. Suddenly the previous emperor and another guy mysteriously burst into flames. An unfriendly albino named Pei (Deng Chao) is on hand to investigate, but the Empress knows what a threat to her coronation this exploding business is so she sends for China’s best detective: a guy she locked up 8 years ago for supposedly betraying her.

That’s Detective Dee of course, played by Andy Lau from HOUSE OF THE FLYING DAGGERS. There’s a little Snake Plissken here ’cause he’s a prisoner called into reluctant duty, but he’s more of a Sherlock Holmes, always deducting shit. He’s got a Rip Van Winkle/HARD TO KILL type beard and I was worried they’d keep him that way to appeal to today’s self-consciously ungroomed rock ‘n roller fuzzballs, but fortunately he cuts it down to a little pointy goatee.

He’s got a pretty good team of supporting players. Pei resents Dee being in charge, but contributes alot in the detectiving department. Dee also has an old friend with a scar on his face and a hook hand. They served time together for “the betrayal” but that guy’s now in charge of building the Buddha, so he has inside information for the investigation. Jing’er (Li Bingbing) is a pretty lady who’s Empress Wu’s personal assistant or something so she’s sent to work for Dee.

There’s alot of sexual tension there. She’s pissed that the Empress sent her to “serve him,” nudge nudge, and she’s even more pissed that he acts like he has no sexual interest in her. When she straddles him and it seems like he’s gonna go for it it turns out he’s just thrusting to move her out of the way of an onslaught of arrows. You know how it is. Just a rescue thrust.

Jing’er has a whip, longer than Indiana Jones’s and with more capabilities. She uses it like it’s an extension of her arm, like it’s a tentacle. That comes in handy alot, but Dee tops it with one of the coolest weapons I’ve seen in a long time, the dragon-taming mace. It’s a long metal staff with a spinning piece that creates vibration sounds to detect cracks in an opponent’s weapon so he can hit it in exactly the right place to shatter it. It also works on architecture.

With that crew and that awesome weapon Dee goes to work, following clues, figuring shit out, detecting. It’s a real mystery story, but not exactly grounded in reality. There are “logical” explanations for spontaneous combustion and talking deers and shit, but it’s fantastical logic, maybe a little Scooby-Doo. Except Scooby-Doo doesn’t have a way that you can put a needle in your neck to disguise your face. It’s accupuncture Mission:Impossible. But that’s not a criticism. It’s fantasy but thankfully not the kind where they just explain everything by saying “there was an evil wizard guy who did magic.”

It’s funny, this is kind of a genre now, you take an old detective character from your culture (in this case an actual historical figure turned literary character) and make a big expensive movie with a murder mystery and fantastical happenings in a stylized artificial version of a historical period. For example the French have that Pitof movie VIDOCQ, and the British have that Guy Ritchie movie SHERLOCK HOLMES, although he forgot to put a mystery in it as far as I could tell. Detective Dee follows in that tradition but since it’s Chinese it also has great martial arts sequences.

The action director is the great Sammo Hung. I read that Tsui wanted the fighting to be realistic, but I don’t know man, he still has some wires to make people hop around nimbly, skipping across objects like a pebble across the surface of a lake. They land in cool poses, sometimes they leap into the air and spin around several times before hitting or kicking. I like that shit. They kick logs through the air, catch arrows right before they hit, latch their whips onto things and swing around. Also there’s a fight against some CGI deer. I cannot stress that enough. That is something I have not seen before. And the best fight is a Hollywood type climax, a battle taking place inside a location that’s crumbling to pieces. The ol’ climactic spectacular destruction.

It’s real good stuff, but don’t expect Hung to top himself. I much prefer IP MAN 1 and 2’s fights. They’re more memorable showstoppers and stronger character moments.

I’ve seen better but I was very satisfied with this picture. I look forward to DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE TBD if they ever make one.

ABOUT THE ENDING, FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE SEEN IT:

But you know what, did you notice at the end that the albino guy was right? He had zeroed in on the actual culprit early on, but Dee vouched for him and got him off the trail. So Dee actually fucked up, if he hadn’t been involved they might’ve solved the case way earlier and prevented alot of trouble.

But I’ll forgive him if he lets me borrow the dragon-taming staff just for like a weekend some time.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 6th, 2011 at 1:42 am and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Mystery, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16 Responses to “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”

  1. Vern, have you reviewed Hark’s “Once Upon in China” films, starring an in his prime Jet Li? They’re pretty good, but my Hark favorites are “The Blade” and “Peking Opera Blues”. The latter is the flick that probably got Tsui annoited the Hong Kong Steven Spielberg (which even as a firm admirerer of Hark and an often detractor of Señor Spielbergo, is a tag that’s a reach at best), but man oh man, “The Blade” is all sorts of awesome.

    Hark, losing some of his popularity with both filmgoers and critics at the time, basically made it as an answer and rebuttal to Wong Kar Wai’s uber-arty wuxia “Ashes of Time”*, so it’s got some ponderous narration and film school abstractness. But as a semi-remake of The Shaw Bros. classic “The One Armed Swordan”, it’s also got a couple incredibly badass characters, a slew of incredible badass scenes, and a final 15 or so minutes is still my favorite action set-piece, ever.** No hyperbole on that either. As far as I know, no quality DVD or BluRay has ever surfaced in region one, but I was told recently that the French have a fairly quality DVD, but then you gotta find the subtitles on the web and that seems like a bit much effort for me. Plus, I’ve seen it 20+ times, so I can continue to wait out a quality region 1 release, but it’s the VHS I miss the most, having jettisoned all my old VHS tapes and player once I got into DVD’s.

    *and Ashes action director? Sammo Hung.

    **well, allright, favorite period action set-piece with swords.1 Barely eking out “8 Diagram Pole Fighter”.

    1) I’m fairly certain most of us have a mental list of favorite action scenes, but we’ve all seen many in so many different styles that I’m sure I’m not the only one who has mentally charted subcategories and niches to help us sort and file them. Can’t just be me, right?

  2. I got this on DVD when it came out in the UK and I was a bit let down by it. I struggled to pay attention to it, because it just seemed to drag a bit, and for the mystery/detective stuff was a bit lacking and the kung fu wasn’t as good as I hoped. Plus you got a bit of that tedious Chinese Propaganda thing these movies have with
    (SPOILER) The Empress having some dishonourable scheme (I forget the specifics), but Dee kinda lets it slide because…China.
    (END SPOILER)
    Maybe I just need to rewatch it, because my attention was really drifting towards the end. I’m also surprised you didn’t mention the fact there’s an actual character called Donkey Wang in the movie. For real.

  3. I’m deliberately avoiding spoilers here if this is a fantastical whodunnit, because I love that kind of thing. But does it work very well as a mystery?

  4. There was a time when this news would light me up like a Christmas tree.

    I’m just not that guy anymore.

  5. I’ve been watching Hark’s movies for 15 years now, but I have found myself rebelling against importing of late. Not sure why. But I guess it will be awhile before I can catch this, but I will wait not so patiently.

    As to the news of the Expendables. Here is my theory as to Simon West and Stallone. Believe it or not, I believe Simon West has one good movie to his credit – The General’s Daughter. Not a classic but pretty darn good.

    This was also part of my Cage, Travolta Face/Off connection. Nic worked with Simon West first and got a Bruckheimered movie. Travolta worked with West second and got the pretty good General’s Daughter.

    Cage also worked with Dominic Sena first and got a Bruckheimered remake of Gone in Sixty Seconds. Travolta worked with Sena second and got the deliriously goofy Swordfish. Do with these thoughts as you will.

    But back to West and Stallone. I believe this will be a lot like the Cosmatos/Stallone matchups from the 80s. Ok, I hope it is. Which means I hope West is the de facto director, but Stallone is actually calling the shots and shaping the film. Because after the back to back of Rocky Balboa and Rambo, I think Stallone still has the chops, he just needs someone to help wrangle all the swinging dicks on set.

  6. I thought this was the chinese version of Transformer 2—plot don’t make a lick of sense, no character development, on-the-nose dialogue, and too much exposition.

    so why do you think this is ok but that transformer 2 is a steaming POS? pray tell

  7. Despite inferior special effects, I thought “Detective Dee” was a far more imaginative, exuberant, and admirably weird example of blockbuster filmmaking than anything I saw from Hollywood this summer. Andy Lau’s performance is excellent, Tsui Hark’s visual talent is on full display, and I think the characters actually possess some interesting shadings. The albino guy alone is more interesting than the entire cast of characters from the “Transformers” movies.

  8. I’m more excited about the possibility of Scott Adkins and Donnie Yen joining The Expendables 2 than Arnold and Bruce having bigger roles. Adkins especially needs a high profile role so general movie going audiences will know he exists. That guy’s been stuck in DTV for too long and deserves the same kinds of roles Statham’s been getting for years. Don’t get me wrong, I love his DTV stuff, but I would kill to see him do his thing in a big (or at least medium) budget theatrical action film.

  9. “The albino guy alone is more interesting than the entire cast of characters from the “Transformers” movies.”

    Not really an accomplishment though, my cat is more interesting than the entire cast of characters from the Transformers movies as well. For that matter, so is his food dish.

  10. I liked this one and despite the fact that Tsui Hark is not so good at a real whodunnit (The Butterfly Murders, man that film was boring) when he wants tohe can insert good pace and enough interesting stuff to make a film entertaining. Peking Opera Blues is probably his best film but my faves are OUATIC I&II, The Blade and Time and Tide (the last one not really liked by majority).

  11. “Not really an accomplishment though, my cat is more interesting than the entire cast of characters from the Transformers movies as well. For that matter, so is his food dish.”

    Cats are assholes but you’re probably still right. Anyways, I only brought it up because the previous poster was comparing “Detective Dee” to “Transformers 2.”

  12. Eliza, I think Time and Tide is a blast too. My favorite that most people don’t share is We Are Going To Eat You, sort of a half-comic kung fu cousin of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

    I wish Detective Dee had less CGI. There’s a lot of stuff that wouldn’t be possible, but part of the joy of Tsui (and HK’s golden age) was the physical reality. Even when the seams showed on a spectacular event, there was enough effort and creativity there to make it sing. Dee’s fine, but so much of it has a created-by-computer feel that it ain’t the same.

    Stu – THANK YOU. The first thing I said to my friend after Dee was that I can’t stand the government-approved ending where the hero lets the antagonist off the hook because they may be bad, but now they’re in power, and without them there the nation would suffer. Soured me on Hero bigtime.

  13. Joe – I haven’t seen Detective Dee yet, but according to what I’ve seen from previews, it does look like Chinese cinema is taking aim at the big budget, big special effects type of blockbuster. The American blockbuster has pretty much taken over the globe, to the point where American films are far more popular in some countries than films made from their own system. Hollywood increasingly relies on revenue from overseas. It would be interesting to see what will happen if Chinese cinema attempts to topple Hollywood’s control of the worldwide blockbuster.

  14. THE FOUNDING OF A REPUBLIC-Starring…virtually everyone of note in chinese cinema from the looks of things.
    http://youtu.be/GN7emQoYueE
    I’m surprised there wasn’t a CGI Bruce Lee in there somewhere too.

  15. There’s a prequel to this playing in American theaters now, called YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON, also directed by Hark.

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