09:57 - 3rd December 2013, by Calum Waddell

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Set in 689 AD, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame not only sports a ridiculously trite title but it has so much exposition in its first ten minutes that you will be forgiven for having a sore head trying to work out exactly what is going on. Nevertheless, when the romp finally kicks into gear, it does tick a lot of the boxes needed for a big blockbuster adventure - including plenty of near-escapes, big battles and a handsome, charismatic leading hero in the shape of the ever-prolific Andy Lau. Indeed, Mr. Lau has been all over our screens in recent years and he appears to be cranking out film after film with rarely a moment to rest. We last saw him in Future X-Cops, but he was a fixture of the sweeping historical monuments Three Kingdoms and The Warlords too. Now obviously commanding significant box office pull in his native Hong Kong - and of course China as well - the Infernal Affairs star is always reliable for believable theatrics and kicking the occasional butt. Here he is no different - although, naturally, the plot calls for a more comedic relish, which Lau, initially introduced with a startling beard, seems to adore throwing himself into.

It is a certainly a welcome change after the more po-faced expectancies of The Warlords and their like!

Lau's co-starlet in Detective Dee is the beautiful Bingbing Li, portraying the lippy, and light-on-her-feet, Jing-er: a protégé of the Chinese Emperor who has released the title character from seven years of hard labour in order to find out who is commanding a series of spectacular spontaneous combustions across the Kingdom. If this sounds delirious then, well, it is - but Li and Lau make for an excellent onscreen engagement and play the plot admirably straight. Ultimately, the central mystery of Detective Dee actually begins to become quite infectious when, by all rights, it should crumble under the weight of its own outright insanity. Previously strutting her stuff in the likes of The Forbidden Kingdom, opposite Jackie Chan, and last year's overdone action farce Triple Tap, the 38-year-old Li is given the space to shine even further in this latest venture. Indeed, whereas it would be understandable if she merged into the consistently colourful scenery when pitched against an actor of Lau's stature, Li instead puts in arguably a career-best turn with Detective Dee and proves to be far more than just another pretty face...

Budgeted at $13 million, Detective Dee also sees the return of director Tsui Hark to somewhat familiar territory. As many readers will know, Hark was the man who really reached a career peak by producing such '80s gangster classics as A Better Tomorrow and The Killer before becoming one of the Far East's most acclaimed filmmakers with Peking Opera Blues and the Once Upon a Time in China series. More recently, Hark has been grinding it out on the epic period drama Seven Swords and the disappointing action amalgamation Triangle. With Detective Dee, the filmmaker returns to the early spectacle of his adventure classics such as debut outing The Butterfly Murders (from 1979) and, more famously, Zu, Warriors from Magic Mountain (1983). What these films both shared was a theatrical staginess, in terms of both the action and the set design, and a breakneck pace - with the latter also anticipating the self-aware comic timing that would infuse the Hong Kong adventure genre as a whole. With Hark back on familiar ground, it is a relief to maintain that Detective Dee has been worth the wait...

Inevitably, though, even with a great cast and director, a film such as this would fail was it not for successful special effects. With a reputedly much smaller cost than the oft-breathtaking Seven Swords, it does need to be stressed that, at times, Detective Dee's digital magic looks a little lame. Often ambitious, the period detail and CGI buildings look, well, exactly like computer-created lumps. Nevertheless, there is still plenty going on, and only the most hard-faced film buff would not appreciate the effort given to the sheer scope of this project.

Final mention must also be given to Sammo Hung - the aging actor who was, at his peak, one of the most amazing martial arts stars on the planet. Given the role of action director, a role he has been taking on for a number of producers, Hung is the man responsible for Detective Dee's many great onscreen clashes, including an especially outstanding finale. For that, he is surely one of the most valued names in the business.

See Detective Dee and witness a collaboration of the greats...

It should not take a detective to realise that this is one film deserving of a place in your collection. Purchase with confidence!
SCORE: 4/5
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