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Review: ‘Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame’

Old School Hong Kong Actioner

Old school Hong Kong action fuels

Credit: Open Road Films

Above: Old school Hong Kong action fuels "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame."

"Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" (opened September 23 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) is a delicious throwback to the Hong Kong martial arts films of the 80s from two men who were key to bringing those films to international attention: Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung.

Inspired by a true story of the Tang Dynasty but making absolutely no pretense of being historically accurate or even remotely realistic, "Detective Dee" serves up a tasty treat about China's first female ruler. Even though Confucian beliefs led to the saying: "A woman ruler is like a hen crowing," China did find itself with a woman, Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), about to assume power as Empress at the end of the 7th century. That's the historical fact. In "Detective Dee" a bizarre murder shortly before her coronation leads Wu to believe an attempt will be made on her life. So she brings Dee Renjie (Andy Lau), a famous and skilled detective, out of exile and appoints him Chief Judge of the Empire. She hopes he will use his impeccable deductive talents and superb martial arts abilities to uncover the assassination plot so she can successfully ascend the throne.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Open Road Films

Andy Lau takes direction from Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark on the set of "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame."

Tsui Hark helped usher in the golden age of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and early 1990s with films like "Zu Warriors From the Magic Mountain," "Peking Opera Blues," "The Swordsman," and "Once Upon a Time in China." Tsui had a knack for wildly over the top fantasies that featured breathtaking wirework. "Detective Dee" harkens back to those films and employs veteran actor Sammo Hung as its inspired action choreographer. Together the two give us a lively, fast-moving, and gravity-defying action fantasy. The action is beautifully choreographed employing impressive wirework, flowing costumes, and dynamic fights in which every element of the surrounding environment comes into play. It's not quite as good as the best of the golden age but it has breathtaking moments and left a smile on my face.

The plot gets a bit convoluted and the film suffers from unevenness but what the heck, it moves along with such energy and joy that "Detective Dee" proves hard to resist. Andy Lau, who's been incredibly busy, and could recently also be seen in "Shaolin," takes on the role of Detective Dee with a serious sense of fun. His Dee is methodical in his approach to analyzing the facts and physically adroit at dealing with his enemies. Tsui is brilliant at delivering the kind of flying people action that made 80s Hong Kong action so audaciously entertaining. He doesn't top any of his best films but he reminds us why Hong Kong action so captured international acclaim. It's a blast to see Tsui and Sammo work together.

"Detective Dee an the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" (in Mandarin with English subtitles and rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and some sexuality) is a wonderful and gorgeous diversion. ENjoy!

Companion viewing: "The Swordsman," "A Chinese Ghost Story," "The Last Emperor"

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