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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame


It's no mystery: This heroic whodunit rules.

Rod Lott November 29th, 2011

Part costume drama, part fantasy, part mystery, part action and all imaginative, "Detective Dee & The Mystery of the Phantom Flame" marks a return to form for master director Tsui Hark, who helped popularize Hong Kong films in the Western hemisphere in the 1990s with the likes of the "Once Upon a Time in China" series and the Jackie Chan vehicle "Twin Dragons," but has weathered a string of more recent misses in "Zu Warriors," "Black Mask 2" and collaborations with Jean-Claude Van Damme.

detectivedee

Set in Hark's beloved Tang Dynasty, the film casts Andy Lau ("Infernal Affairs") as the star sleuth, imprisoned for treason for daring criticize royalty. Now, the very person who ordered him behind bars, Empress Wu (Carina Lau, "2046"), requires his help. Days away from her coronation ceremony, a towering statue being erected in her honor has been the site of a mysterious tragedy: a man's spontaneous combustion — the "phantom flame" of the title.

This being set in the third century, Detective Dee cannot rely on "CSI"-style technology, but his own astute powers of observation. In this manner, he's the Sherlock Holmes of the Far East, with Wu's angry albino minister (Chao Deng, "Assembly") and right-hand woman (Bingbing Li, "The Forbidden Kingdom") being the closest thing he has to a Dr. Watson.

And this being a mystery — more than two hours at that — further specifics of the plot cannot be discussed without spoiling Dee's discoveries. But I can say that the trip from problem to solution is a fantastic one. With awe-inspiring fight choreography from the legendary Sammo Hung ("Ip Man 2"), "Detective Dee" crackles with energy and ingenuity, played amid epic sets that made me wish my television set were the size of a wall. The characters' mid-film trip to the underground lair of — don't laugh — Donkey Wang makes for a deliriously fun set piece of gravity-defying and monster-fighting that not even the film's bravura climax can match.

The only points of the plot that may not translate so well could be the comedic ones, but they amount to a mere smattering. One bit, however, about the power of the brain, ends with a visual punch line that had me laughing out loud. Watch out for it.

If there's a deficiency in Indomina's beautiful Blu-ray, it's that none of the brief featurettes address the source material of the Detective Dee character, which dates back to 18th-century literature. By the time the film was over, I was curious to hear about Dee's real-life roots ... and totally primed for another adventure. —Rod Lott




 
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