Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Directed by Hark Tsui.
2010. Rated PG-13, 119 minutes.
Andy Lau
Carina Lau
Bingbing Li
Chao Deng
Tony Leung Ka Fai

We kick things off in the year 689 A.D. Empress Wu (Carina Lau) is about to crowned as the first female ruler of China. As you might imagine, this ruffles the feathers of many men. It probably doesn't help that she’s having a giant monument to herself built a mere sixty-six yards from where her coronation is to take place. During the final days of its construction, a high-ranking government official who is giving a tour to a visiting dignitary, spontaneously bursts into flames and falls to his death. Not much is left of him, save for his shoes. A short while later, another official suffers the same fate, suddenly catching fire and dying right in full view of the empress. A couple of clues lead everyone to think this has something to do with what happened in the province of Dee eight years ago. Therefore, they must hire the only man who can possibly solve this case, Detective Dee (Andy Lau). Of course, Detective Dee has been in prison over that span for treason. You see, he was one of those men and publicly opposed Wu’s ascension to the throne. Now that she needs his help, she’s willing to let bygones be bygones and sends Jing’er (Li), her most trusted bodyguard to retrieve the detective and get this case cracked so her coronation can go off without a hitch.

Since this is a martial arts picture, we must first judge this movie on just that, martial arts. The legendary Sammo Hung handles the choreography here and, truthfully, I’m disappointed with his effort. There’s lots of wire work, fitting for a story that incorporates a lot of magic. Therefore, characters fly around effortlessly and perform unbelievably acrobatic feats. This is fine, but the fighting itself is less than thrilling, save for one or two sequences nearer to the start of the movie than the end. It seems there is often a lot more chasing than kung-fuing.

Now, about that story. It’s cluttered, to say the least. It moves forward as a police procedural with the very Sherlock Holmes-esque Dee trying to solve the crime (murder, if I hadn't made that clear). He simply intuits an awful lot (everyone does, actually) and, naturally, he’s always right. This creates so many strands it gets to be a very crowded picture. There is another high-ranking official trying to keep Wu from the throne and/or get Dee to join his cause, he and Jing’er’s infatuation with each other, a couple different trips to magical locales, the possibly evil and supernatural chaplain, the back-story of Dee’s weapon (“the dragon taming mace”), fun with transfiguration, and talking deer. Um, yeah, talking deer. One shows up periodically to, more or less, explain character motivations. The beast itself is eventually explained, but it’s all very goofy. It only gets goofier when a bunch of bad CGI deer are used during a fight scene. It’s a bad idea and worse execution.

Even worse than the execution of everything involving deer is that scene where the bad guy spills the beans. You know the scene, the one where the villain appears to have the hero beat so he proceeds to explain his entire plan that he says is too late to foil while cackling maniacally. Yeah, that scene. In general, I’m okay with this because I know it’s coming and, just like the bad guy always says, there’s nothing I can do to stop it. The problem here is that once everything has been explained, we come to the realization that, in this case, if the bad guy had done absolutely nothing, committed no prior crimes whatsoever, he would've realized his ultimate goal without so much as a hiccup. In other words, I could have been spared this entire movie. Sigh. Consider my loss your gain and avoid this flick even if you are a hardcore martial arts junkie.

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