Fantasia 2022 Review: DETECTIVE VS. SLEUTHS, An Over-The-Top Action Packed Return For Wai Ka-Fai
After a very long hiatus from the big screen, Wai Ka-Fai is back with Detective Vs. Sleuths, a wildly over the top revenge thriller that reminds of the bad old days of Hong Kong genre cinema while frequently tipping into delirious silliness. Co-founder of Milkyway Image with his better-known counterpart, Johnnie To, Wai is perhaps most famous as a screenwriter of some of To’s more outré features. As a director, he’s made a name for himself for genre-bending features like the sublimely twisty Mad Detective and the literary fantasy Written By, but the latter was his most recent feature directorial effort in 2009. With fifteen years of absence from that role, Wai might seem to be a bit shaky, but Detective Vs. Sleuths finds the filmmaker firing on all ridiculous cylinders, delivering a thriller that is perhaps a bit left of center and often tests the bounds of logic, but is never dull.
Hong Kong legend Lau Ching Wan is Lee Chun, a Holmesian sleuth with an uncanny ability to make connections that the other detectives frequently miss. When he bursts into the police station one night to accuse the cops of bungling an arrest in front of the entire press corps things go terribly wrong and he is dismissed from the force. This traumatic event sends him into a spiral that lands him under a bridge, muttering about his theories for an endless number of bungled cases to no one in particular. When some of his theories start to bear fruit seventeen years later, the Sleuth is reborn and he takes the cops for a wild ride.
Hong Kong is being plagued by a series of very stylized murders. The police determine that the victims are all previously accused murderers who somehow ended walking free after botched investigations. Each crime scene is graffiti’d with case numbers leading the authorities on a race to stop the next murder before it happens. The vigilante killers appear to have connections to these killings, but it takes Lee Chun interfering with the official police investigation to get close, but even then, things start to fold over on themselves, leading to a brutal twist-a-minute epic finale.
Wai’s screenplay is absolutely wild, and feels like the most violent game of and-then we’ve seen from Hong Kong in a good while. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on what’s going on, Wai shows one more card in his hand and sends every character scattering to catch up. It often throws a middle finger to the bounds of credulity, but since when has that ever been a barrier to a good time at the movies? Whereas a lot of Wai’s work uses his unique vision in somewhat subtle ways – if you’re a fan, trust me I know that sounds ridiculous – with Detective Vs. Sleuths, he goes full on ‘90s action crazy, and it’s a fun if frequently goofy adventure for the audience.
One of the finest Hong Kong has to offer, Lau Ching Wan is incredible in a performance that requires a lot of him both physically and in terms of his delivery. Pressed into a mental break down, part of that manifests itself in a dissociative disorder that frequently sees Lau playing against himself within scenes. It’s gimmicky, for sure, but we’re in good hands with Lau, and obviously his rapport and trust of his director works in everyone’s favor. The pair are an incredible team, able to remain in sync through the daftest of ideas, and it shows in every minute of this film.
Wai’s supporting cast are more or less props in Lee Chun’s story, and that’s totally okay. Everyone in Detective Vs. Sleuths is chewing scenery like there’s no tomorrow, but Raymond Lam’s Detective Fong as Lee’s antagonist is next-level bonkers. These performances are vintage Hong Kong action screamers, both characters go full tilt at all times, switching from respected competitors to full on enemies, they leave it all on the screen as the film winds toward its gunfire and explosion laden finale. While on one hand it’s complete absurdity, on the other, it’s damn fun to watch.
Detective Vs. Sleuths harkens back to the heroic bloodshed heyday with endless gun battles and the kind of dangerous looking stunts that made the West notice Hong Kong action back in the old days. Some of it is messy, a lot of it is completely illogical – for instance, the climax features dozens of gunmen firing thousands of rounds and hitting absolutely nothing before conveniently turning all of these same gunmen into crack shots when it’s necessary for the plot – but that never stopped me from cheering back in the ‘90s, so why should it now?
One thing that is a big difference from those bad old days is the ugly soap opera aesthetic adopted by Hong Kong cinema in recent years. Whereas the classic films looked and felt grittier when shot on film, the new digital era turns action sequences into over lit video games. There’s less of a sense of danger and even though it’s all technically very well executed, it doesn’t have the same bite.
Though I’m sure Hong Kong film fans will be unanimously overjoyed that Wai Ka-Fai is making his long overdue return to the director’s chair, Detective Vs. Sleuths will certainly be divisive. It’s scrappy filmmaking with little regard for convention and a love of melodrama. The script is absolutely bat shit crazy, and Lau Ching Wan and Raymond Lam are running at 110% insanity at all times, but it’s a really fun time once it settles into its own rhythms and the audience is able to get into that groove with the film. Wai Ka-Fai came to play, and Detective Vs. Sleuths is a big ball of outlandish fun that will hit a sweet spot with lovers of outrageous Hong Kong action thrillers.
Detective vs Sleuths
- Ka-Fai Wai
- Lu Jia
- Li Jie
- Ka-Fai Wai
- Ching Wan Lau
- Charlene Choi
- Raymond Lam