Somewhere in-between the inexplicable and bizarre trappings of the universe and the kung-fu acrobatics, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame manages to weave a gripping tale with the kind of smart callbacks and subtle visual cues that rewards the careful viewing. In that regard, it exceeds expectations of being just another kung-fu movie.
Therefore, it’s disappointing that the film which spends so much time crafting the details of an interesting universe and detailed environments lacks character nuance. Detective Dee (Andy Lau) is a protagonist without flaws and Jing’er (Li Bing Bing) falls too readily into the tough woman with a chip on a shoulder. Even worse is the final reveal when the final mystery is brought to light, giving a trite motivation to the evil mastermind behind the whole messy affair.
This doesn’t hinder Dee’s journey to discover the identity of the murder who’s MO is poisoning his victims so that when they enter sunlight, they burn to death, it just makes the final end an unsatisfying conclusion as none of the characters have changed in any meaningful way. Some just happen to be dead.
Although, this fact is not entirely true as one key character is taught a lesson, but it’s a literal lesson in the form of Dee’s brazen lecture. Perhaps then the true lesson is that men like Dee, for all their controversial and inflammatory remarks, are the kind of men society needs in order to balance justice with authorial benevolence.
Dee’s role within the judicial system does become one of the interesting thematic musings of the film. While Dee maintains the moral good, he is caught up in a system corrupted and cruel in its administration of justice, suggesting that even his affiliation might end up promoting a system of oppression and injustice upon the Chinese people.
Of course, this justice must be administered through a good dose of kung-fu justice. The stunt direction is led by Hong Kong action juggernaut Sammo Hung. The scope, vision and execution of all the action set-pieces are superb, focusing on acrobatic agility and consistent flow throughout the stunts involved. While perhaps not as elegant as some of the bigger action films from Hong Kong, it makes up for it in creative concepts.
It’s the constant creativity in many departments that keeps Detective Dee compelling. Some might find the supernatural elements of the film obtuse, but it shows a constant interested in shaping a world with something interesting around every corner. Not every element is as necessary as the next, an overreliance of CGI to give the film an epic scope is a bit misguided, but it makes the film visually arresting.
While many moviegoers praised 13 Assassins as the Orient action film of 2011, Detective Dee surpasses it in just about every department. The intriguing narrative does more to draw the viewers in than the promise of an hour of uninterrupted action and the set-pieces are much more creative and compelling than the gory and grounded massacre of 13 Assassins.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing