Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, 2010.
Directed by Hark Tsui.
Starring Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau and Tony Leung Ka Fai.
In 7th Century China, An exiled detective is recruited to solve a series of mysterious deaths that threaten to delay the inauguration of Empress Wu.
A good detective story can survive with just a good amount of clues and a steady pace, but when it enters the outer circle of the action adventure genre, it’s hard not to be pleased. Even the recent Sherlock Holmes adaptation embraced the modern cop buddy genre to provide a thoroughly good watch. Of course, not all detectives would benefit with this treatment. I would hardly imagine Poirot or Columbo mucking in when the fists started flying. But some detectives can.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame has been described mostly as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and for good reason. As soon as the murder mystery plot is introduced, it isn’t long until legs and arms twirl about the place in superbly choreographed fighting bliss. Granted, the first 20 minutes are a bit slow paced and it takes it time to set up the main plot and the key characters, but as soon everything is in place it picks up and doesn’t stop.
The backdrop is late 7th Century China. The Empress Wu has claimed the throne despite quite a bit of disapproval (put that down to 7th Century sexism), and for her coronation, she has ordered a statue to mark the occasion. Well I say statue, it’s practically a sky scraper with arms. Barely have the credits started that one of the officials working on this venture burns horribly from what can only be described by one of the workers as divine intervention. I mean, how else do you describe what looks like spontaneous human combustion when it’s this period of human history. Anyway, after a second official does another fatal impression of a fireball, Empress Wu decides to call in previously incarcerated Detective Dee to solve the case of the Phantom Flame.
Dee is your archetypical crime fighter. Not only is he up to standard with the amount of martial art skill required to even star as an extra in these films, he’s gifted with the charm and wit of a true leading man. I have to say, I was quite taken with him at first, but his rough round the edges rogue was put back in its box once Detective Dee is appointed to solve the mystery. He’s still a hero suited for the film, but he goes from shaggy Jack Sparrow to clean Dirty Harry rather too soon for me to enjoy this aspect of him. However, his first fight scene set the standard of the rest of the action scenes in the film: creatively acrobatic, yet hilarious. A tongue in every cheek.
One thing that threw me off the mystery were the supernatural elements in the film. Not even at the end of the first quarter, there’s a talking deer. Yes, you heard me right. A talking deer. A deer that could talk. I did have to rewind to double check. One of the locations could only be described as a spooky underworld, where Detective Dee fights a masked warrior who splits himself into 3 variants of himself before unleashing a wooden ninja robot. Luckily it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the film, just made me confused and wonder if I actually was watching a detective mystery.
Story wise, it’s an extremely well structured mystery that reveals everything at the right pace whilst surprising you with things you already know, but slightly forgot about. The cast isn’t the best I’ve ever seen, but the narrative and set pieces more than make up for that. It’s an epic murder mystery that has enough action and fighting to draw in the interest from even the most hardened action buffs.
Will Preston is a student at the University of Portsmouth. He writes for various blogs (including his own website), presents a weekly radio show on PURE FM and makes various short films.
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