It's been a while since Tsui Hark has produced a real crowd pleaser. Once the absolute top of the heap when it came to action film, his peak period spinning out hits by the fistful as both a producer and a director, the general consensus is that his last really good film was Time And Tide a full decade ago with more recent efforts like Seven Swords and Missing bogging down in overly convoluted plots and uninspired scripts. Looking back over this period - as well as the five year span prior, with the gap between The Blade and Time And Tide also fairly shaky - one other factor becomes apparent. Somewhere along the line Hark seemed to forget that movies are meant to be fun.
Though still over plotted and overly convoluted Hark's latest, Detective Dee And The Mystery of the Phantom Flame, is very definitely fun. This is a movie that features a kung fu fight pitting Andy Lau against a herd of angry, talking deer. This is a movie with a plotline built around apparent cases of spontaneous human combustion. This is a movie that saddles Teddy Robin (most recently seen in Gallants) with a character named Donkey Wang, and whether that particular gag was intentional or not it brought an adolescent grin to my face every time someone said it. And it does all of this is a movie that is not technically a comedy. Tsui Hark has found his missing sense of humor*, people, and it looks good on him.
Andy Lau stars as popular literary character Detective Dee, a former police officer jailed for treason when he opposed the rise of China's only female Emperor to the throne. Her methods were not entirely ethical, you see, and speculation abounded as to the former Emperor really died and Dee just couldn't stand for that. And so he has rotted in jail for eight years as the woman who jailed him consolidates her power as Regent for the young Crown Prince before finally making a play to take the throne herself.
But this does not go unopposed. Preparations for a massive coronation ceremony are interrupted when two high ranking workers preparing a massive bronze Buddha statue - one that would dwarf the statue of liberty - appear to spontaneously combust on the work site, events that those close to the Empress view as a not particularly veiled threat against her. Desperate to know how to proceed she takes counsel from her spiritual adviser who sends a talking deer (really) telling her that only Dee can crack this case. And so out of jail he comes, forced to swear allegiance to the woman he once tried to depose, matched with one of the Empress' favored (and beautiful) guards and an albino Supreme Court super cop as helpers / guards to help him crack the case while also making sure he doesn't return to his seditious ways.
And off we go through a story that is equal parts Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie style) and Scooby Doo (original cartoon style), all of it filtered through a gorgeous Chinese historical epic lens.
Very much a film in the Everything Including The Kitchen Sink mold of The Bride With White Hair or A Chinese Ghost Story, the preference for CGI effects - some good, some less good - over practical work may irk some but the spirit of the picture is spot on with Hark's own roots and that return to devil may care, let's try a bit of everything film making reminds us why we cared about Hark in the first place. A bit of comedy, a bit of mystery, some romance, some martial arts, a dash of horror, a trace of palace intrigue, Detective Dee is like a full season of your favorite kung fu soap opera distilled down into a more compact package with far better production values.
Andy Lau gets out of his recent rut with his first character overseas fans can latch on to since 2007's Warlords - an eternity for a guy who works at the pace Lau does - and he is matched by a solid cast across the board. Fight choreography by Sammo Hung straddles the line between old and new school, matching elements of both and the settings the characters are dropped into evoke the Golden Age style while looking far more polished. Though there is a bit of wobbly CGI - the deer and some of the combustion shots in particular - most of it is well used and well above typical quality for the region.
It's still over complicated, there's no doubt about that. Hark could seriously use a seasoned script editor who he trusts on his staff, someone who could crack the whip and rein in the more serious excesses and unnecessary diversions. But after a lengthy string of near misses and outright misfires it's a joy to see Hark at the helm of a film that gets so much more right than wrong. Not perfect by a long shot but Detective Dee marks the return of Hark the entertainer as opposed to Hark the serious film maker and we're all better off for it.
* Yes, I know 2008's All About Women was a comedy. I just didn't find it a funny one.
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