Before Regular Age Detective Dee, it only stands to reason, there was Young Detective Dee. Three years after Tsui Hark’s crowd-pleasing supernatural action mystery blockbuster DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME he recast with Mark Chao (THE WARRIOR’S GATE) in place of Andy Lau and gave us a case from early in his career: YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON.
As the title implies, it starts with some kinda kraken. I have too much respect for you to make a pun out of that. But you can imagine one. Something attacks the Chinese navy, they think it’s a sea monster, so obviously
1) they’re gonna sacrifice Yin Ruiji (Angelababy, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE) to the monster and
2) Empress Wu (returning Carina Lau, SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT) threatens to execute Yuchi (Feng Shaofeng, THE MONKEY KING 2 and 3) if he doesn’t figure out who attacked the fleet in ten days. Kind of a tough boss.
Dee is not assigned the case. He’s sent to the justice department to work for them, along the way saving Yuchi from some bandits and Ruiji from a human sized sea monster abductor, and then Yuchi doesn’t believe he’s supposed to work for the department and has him locked in a dungeon!
Here Dee uses his Sherlock powers. Spotting a medical assistant named Shatuo (Lin Gengxin, THE GREAT WALL), he sorta acts like he knows him, reciting all kinds of details about his life, later explaining how he guessed those things based on Shatuo’s surname, accent, approximate age, etc. But somehow he gets him to help fake a sickness so he can escape, and they become a team.
So what’s up with this humanoid Black Lagoon type sea monster? Do they really think he attacked their navy? I don’t know. It’s not my favorite makeup design, but he’s a scaly dude who does a little kung fu. I can get behind that. Ruiji comes to realize that he’s her former (and formerly human) lover Yuan Zhen (Korean actor/singer Kim Bum, DETECTIVE K: SECRET OF THE LIVING DEAD), an elite teamaker who won her over with his poetic love letters.
There are some bad guys who wear masks and carry bees around in little tubes and use them as weapons. I have to say, the animation of the bees when they’re shown in closeup is pretty cheesy, but it’s worth it for the cool idea and the shot where one bee gets sliced in half with a sword.
I had some problems with he look of this one. I can forgive the Stephen Sommers level c.g. of the naval battle, but the blatant standing-in-front-of-a-greenscreen quality is distracting. It seems so clean and brightly lit that I questioned if I could’ve accidentally turned on motion smoothing somehow. It’s weird, because it’s clearly a huge production in terms of number of extras, period costumes, sets and props, so it’s quite a feat that it still looks cheap in parts. At the same time, it seems well designed for 3D, with particular emphasis on digital flying weapons, so I started to theorize that it was overly bright to compete with dark 3D projector lenses, and should’ve had some compensation in the transfer. I don’t know. But I got used to it.
Since it’s Hark it’s very stylish and there’s some cool martial arts and some gross out stuff, like when people who have been poisoned have swarms of dung beetles crawl out of their mouths. But it’s more than just craziness. I like these characters. I like that Dee never tries to kill the “monster” even before he knows he’s human. I like the sad look he gives Yuchi when he’s promoted over him, even though he clearly has been figuring all the shit out while Yuchi keeps being wrong about everything and also being an asshole.
Like part 1, this feels like a very good take on Hollywood blockbuster spectacle as filtered through Chinese culture, Hong Kong filmmaking craft and the personality of director Tsui Hark. It has that “then this happened, then this happened, but then THIS” kinda episodic, strung-together-set-pieces structure, fueled by colorful heroism and villainy. That sort of thing works well for this character since the events all follow a clever set of clues and the solutions he comes up with. And he’s not only getting in scuffles with bad guys and monsters, but repeatedly finding himself at odds with his own government, which keeps thinking he’s wrong and trying to execute him for it.
I love when everybody is like “Good job Detective Dee, case closed, you fuckin DID it my friend, hats off. Now, I guess now that everything’s back to normal I guess we sh– wait a minute, why do you still look concerned, what do you know that—“ [KERSPLASH! GIANT FUCKIN SEA MONSTER ATTACK!]
And it’s a great ending because it pays off what he accomplished, gives him the job and trademark weapon he’ll have in the taking-place-later first film, and also implies future adventures. The emperor gives Dee the Dragon-Taming Mace, that cool weapon with a spinning part that causes vibrations that can shatter stone or metal. I’m glad I forgot all about that so I didn’t have to be sad he didn’t have it in the rest of the movie. Anyway, the emperor tells him it’s important to have someone of integrity like him to be a check on everyone, even the imperial court. And Empress Wu has this “Uh, not so sure I want that type of accountability” look.
It even has multiple mid-credits scenes of both the cliffhanger and funny-return-to-earlier-business variety. Which reminds me, one thing we get here that’s not in any of the MCU movies so far: he convinces all the kingdom’s rulers to drink pee. (Long story.)
Anyway, I’m convinced now – I’ll watch Detective Dee at any age, from BABY DETECTIVE DEE AND THE CURSED NURSERY MOBILE to SEA DRAGON: LOWERING OF OLD DETECTIVE DEE.
Thanks to Borg9 for praising the third DETECTIVE DEE movie in a comment thread a while back, reminding me to catch up.
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.