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With: Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Li Bingbing, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Deng Chao
Written by: Chen Kuofu, Zhang Jialu, based on a story by Qianyu Lin
Directed by: Tsui Hark
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Mandarin, with English subtitles
Running Time: 122
Date: 09/05/2010
IMDB

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Crispy Clues

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Tsui Hark blasted onto the scene at the same time as John Woo, revitalizing the Hong Kong film industry with his Peking Opera Blues (1986), and also as the producer of Woo's A Better Tomorrow. Both of their careers have varied wildly since then. Both came to Hollywood for a time, and both directed Jean-Claude Van Damme movies.

Woo's career more or less nose-dived as loyal fans began turning up their noses at his American output, whereas Tsui seemed untouched by good movies, bad movies, American movies, or Chinese movies. He could seemingly do or try anything. This is perhaps because he works faster and his movies are less like events when they're finished. The latest one has a great title, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, and to the best of my knowledge it's the first of his films to be released in U.S. theaters since Time and Tide in 2001.

The new movie proves that, while Tsui is great at making movies that move, he's not particularly gifted with heavy plots. A case in point was The East Is Red: Swordsman III (1993), a much-anticipated sequel to my favorite Tsui movie, Swordsman II; in an effort to become bigger, it also became more complex and convoluted, and it wasn't nearly as kinetic.

Detective Dee begins with the construction of a giant Buddha temple, and Tsui's camera flies and swoops all over the inside and outside of the immense structure; suddenly, one of the head men on the job steps into the sunlight and catches on fire. He burns to cinders within moments. With her coronation not long off, Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) decides to recruit the famous Detective Dee (Andy Lau), who has been imprisoned for speaking out against the empress.

Teamed with Shangguan Jing'er (Lin Bingbing) and Pei Donglai (Deng Chao), Dee follows his nose, attempting to solve the case. They venture into some strange places, and more people (and a bird) burst into flame. Whenever anyone gets close to the answer, there's a big fight, and someone is killed (or almost killed). Sammo Hung choreographed the fights sequences, and together with Tsui's smooth direction, they are spectacular.

But whereas the mystery story should feel tough and snappy, it instead feels a bit thick and heavy. Tsui takes a bit too long here and there, and while individual scenes may move quickly enough, it's just enough to put a drag on the overall pacing. It's not one of Tsui's best. However, Tsui's skill, the fluidity of the images, and the charisma of the cast, all contribute to make this a worthwhile effort.

Incidentally Detective Dee is based on the real-life Di Renjie; in the 18th century, a detective novel casting him as a hero was first published. In the 1940s, author Robert van Gulik translated it, and wrote a new series of novels about "Judge Dee." This movie was nominated for a slew of Hong Kong Film Awards and won several including Tsui as Best Director, and Carina Lau as Best Actress.

A new Blu-Ray from Vivendi really highlights the film's stellar visuals; extras include four featurettes, stills galleries, and a trailer.

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