Johnnie To reunites his dream team pairing of Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng for the first time in nearly a decade, but the results are far from perfect as this oddball comedy thriller proves an unwieldy and unsatisfying beast.
When not crafting stylish crime dramas (The Mission, Exiled, Drug War), exploring fantastical thriller territory with collaborator Wai Ka Fai (Running on Karma, Mad Detective), or peering deep into Hong Kong's wounded socio-economic soul (Election 2, Life Without Principle), writer-producer-director Johnnie To has been known to dabble in romantic comedy.
Over the years, through films including Needing You and Love on a Diet, To has cast superstar Andy Lau together with pop icon Sammi Cheng to hugely popular effect. However, after a crisis of confidence following the disastrous reception of Stanley Kwan's Everlasting Regret caused Cheng to essentially retire from acting, the onscreen couple appeared to have had their last cinematic date.
But cautiously Cheng returned, first with Felix Chong and Alan Mak's Lady Cop and Papa Crook before To cast her opposite Louis Koo in 2011's underappreciated Romancing in Thin Air. Now Blind Detective sees the dream team back together for the first time since 2004, and truth be told, it's Sammi's contribution that makes the film in any way watchable.
While Andy Lau might not always make the wisest project choices, every Future X-Cops will normally be counter-balanced by something like A Simple Life. He is a dependable star presence who can take a movie like the gloriously terrible Switch, currently doing the rounds across Asia, and help make it strangely watchable. In Blind Detective, however, it is Lau's performance that sits atop the film's long list of problems.
Since losing his sight four years previously, Lau's titular snoop, Johnston, was forced into early retirement , but the Hong Kong Police Force keep him in their employ as a consultant, brought in to help crack particularly perplexing cases. But Johnston is somewhat abrasive and eccentric, and his behaviour often borders on the sociopathic, and Lau lacks the necessary talent to give the character any subtlety or nuance. Instead, he repeatedly falls back on extravagant flailing and shouting, which can prove difficult to watch or take seriously.
Andy Lau's Johnston makes for a telling contrast when compared with Lau Ching Wan's rather brilliant Detective Bun in Johnnie To's similarly pitched Mad Detective. Also a former cop called back into the fold to apply his unique perspective, Bun used many similar methods of deduction, from tossing his partner down the stairs to visualising himself occupying the same space as his suspects, but where Bun was genuinely frightening, Lau can only make Johnston annoying.
Conversely, Sammi Cheng brings plenty of her natural charm and charisma to her character. Inspector Ho is partnered with Johnston to investigate a 20-year-old murder case, but also hires him privately to track down a missing classmate. Johnston agrees, for the princely sum of HK$1 million, and offers to teach Ho a few trade secrets along the way. He also moves into her lavish house, and sure enough, they eventually fall for each other - but not before a lengthy, yet mostly unnecessary, subplot involving Gao Yuanyuan's dance instructor has been resolved.
Blind Detective's biggest problem is that tonally it is all over the place. Part romantic comedy, part surreal crime thriller, it fails to reconcile these two conflicting halves despite giving itself 129 minutes to do so, and ultimately leaves its audience stranded. While Hong Kong Cinema has always shown a predilection for genre-bending and startling tonal shifts - just look at To's own aforementioned Running on Karma or Mad Detective - Blind Detective never manages to generate enough momentum to carry itself over the bumps and cracks. This has clearly been a problem for the film's marketing team as well. Their campaign has changed dramatically since the film was introduced in March, from a moody action thriller into a wacky buddy comedy.
Johnnie To must ultimately shoulder responsibility for the mess that Blind Detective has become. Visually it displays all the flourishes for which he is often praised, but none of the discipline to construct it into a coherent or entertaining film. It drags at times, careers off course at others, feels largely directionless and rarely under control. What could have been something of a spiritual sequel to the excellent Mad Detective, turns out to be a major disappointment, clumsily assembled by a director sorely lacking a specific vision.