Saturday, July 28, 2012

Review: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Kung-Fu Deer Fighting

There's occasionally a moment in an otherwise dull or middling film that almost completely justifies your time commitment. Detective Dee is one such film containing one such moment. For over an hour, it's a visually engaging but narratively so-so film. It's a brave attempt at creating a Hollywood style blockbuster with a distinctly Chinese perspective, and it's one that makes a valiant effort while clearly lacking the resources to pull it off seamlessly. It's harmless, relatively diverting stuff: nothing more.

Then there's a scene where Andy Lau fights a herd of deer.

Getting to this point is a struggle, as the basic plot is convoluted and, being honest, a little on the forced side. Basically, the first Empress of China (Carina Lau) is about to be crowned, and there's some discontent from the male establishment. Despite enemies in the shadows, a gigantic, towering Buddha is being built within spitting distance of the Palace to celebrate the coronation. However, on a routine visit to the construction site, an official spontaneously combusts. The police are, understandably, a bit concerned about this case of man going on fire. To make matters worse, a high-ranked police officer working on the case also combusts: in the presence of the Empress. On the advise of the hermit Palace Chaplain through the medium of his talking deer (don't ask), the Empress invites exiled Detective Dee, currently in the eighth year of a prison sentence, to solve the case. Dee is played by Andy Lau, so you know he's going to kick some perpetrator ass. But can he solve it before the coronation date, or will the big action climax play out during the ceremony in a frantic race against time?  Stay tuned to find out!

It's a messy plot, further complicated by Dee's relationships with cop Pei (Chao Deng) and the Empress' appointed bodyguard / minder Jing'er (Li Bing Bing). Despite some intriguing revelations, it's a plot that frequently invites the viewer to ask questions such as "who's that guy?" and "why's he doing that?". The main investigation plot is pretty straightforward, but I personally found myself grasping to keep track of the intricacies and character motivations.

Kinetic action sequences break up the police procedural core. It aims for the balletic action of Crouching Tiger or Hero, but lacks the inspired choreography and cinematography to do so. There's some enjoyable setpieces - a highlight sees Jing'er and Dee attacked with a wave of throwing knives by unseen assailants - but the core combat lacks weight and force. Visually, it's mostly pleasant, although the CGI and effects aren't always able to match the scope and scale of the fantastical Chinese settings the filmmakers want to render - the fire effects particularly really struggle. It's largely forgivable considering the lack of Hollywood resources, and mostly it's a decent looking spectacle movie.

Then the deer fight happens. For various reasons, Dee finds himself cornered by a pack of semi-CGIed deers on temple grounds. He kicks the shit out of them in surprisingly amusing and bone-crushing detail. Don't worry: they're asshole deer, not the more loveable kind. It's an out of left-field sequence of tongue-in-cheek animal cruelty, and it gives the film a surreal, entertaining jolt of energy after a series of exposition heavy twists and double-crosses. Comically cruel though it may be, Andy Lau punching and kicking a couple o' bucks is the scene that makes this film worth watching.

It's a short sequence, though, and director Tsui Hark promptly gets back to the task of resolving the plot. Still somewhat struggling to retain audience interest, the third act does provide a number of unexpected developments, with Hark more than happy to give likeable characters unhappy endings. It all culminates with a - shocking spoiler! - an epic action sequence as Dee races to stop the coronation ceremony from turning into an unfortunate case of regicide. It's fun, if unremarkable stuff.

Fun but unremarkable - that's Detective Dee in a nutshell. The soundtrack and scale of the vistas suggest epicness on a Hollywood scale, and futile though such an effort is, it tries its darndest to the credit of the cast & crew. The storyline is three-quarters sluggish, one-quarter engaging and surprising. The action lacks grace and the CGI is iffy, but mostly it's pleasing enough on the eyes. But for a minute or two, you get to see the great Andy Lau mercilessly wailing on a couple of bastard deer. Any film you can say that about is worthy of your time, or at the bare minimum a cheeky chapter select.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah. You had me at 'deer fight' for sure.

    Thank you very much for that, solid review!