Vivendi Visual Entertainment // 2011 // 122 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 4th, 2011
Inspired by the incredible true story. (It really says this on the back of the DVD case.)
One of 2011's most intriguing summer blockbusters sort of came and went without really being noticed in the United States. Tsui Hark's Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is an action-packed, special effects-fueled extravaganza that is alternately a grim drama, a juvenile comedy, a Sherlock Holmes mystery, a lavish fantasy, a martial arts epic, a Scooby-Doo adventure and a political thriller. It never quite manages to be great at any of these things, but it's pretty good at all of them and manages to be an engaging (if somewhat overlong) slice of wild, phantasmagorical fun.
The story begins in 690 AD, as Chinese Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Wou, 2046) is preparing to take the throne. To commemorate the event, humble contractor Shatuo Zhong (Tony Leung Ka Fei, Three...Extremes) is heading up the construction of a giant Buddha statue. Unfortunately, a series of very strange events have disrupted the construction, as two high-ranking officials have spontaneously combusted after paying visits to the construction site. Some believe this is divine intervention of some sort, but others seek more practical solutions. After much fretting, Empress Wu determines that she needs to release the famed Detective Dee (Andy Lau, House of Flying Daggers) from prison (he had been accused of treason several years earlier) and put his considerable skills to the test.
The central mystery is engaging enough, but it primarily seems to serve as a springboard for whatever sort of wildness Tsui feels like throwing at the screen. The basic thrill of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is that it feels like it could go just about anywhere at any given moment. It flits back and forth between sensible realism (Dee scoffs at the notion that some supernatural being is responsible for the deaths) and loopy fantasy (Dee is given a magical mace which allows him to determine whether or not someone is telling the truth) at will; the movie seems intent on constantly upsetting our expectations of what it ought to be. Is a goofy kung-fu movie with talking deer? Yes. Is it a thoughtful examination of a shifting political climate which seamlessly integrates well-known historical figures into its fabric? You bet. Does it have a character named Donkey Wang? Of course it does.
Even if the film is never quite as wildly successful as it aspires to be, I wouldn't go so far as to call it an ambitious failure. The fact of the matter is that Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame does indeed deliver a satisfying experience and resolves its central mystery in enjoyable fashion; it simply doesn't juggle its countless tonal plates as smoothly as we might hope (I almost wonder whether such a thing would have been possible). From moment to moment, it's fantastic. As a two-hour viewing experience, it's a little bumpy and strangely-paced. Still, I'd much rather take a bumpy yet wildly entertaining ride like this than sit through a more smoothly-engineered slice of genre-blending mediocrity like Cowboys and Aliens.
There's similarly inconsistency in the special effects department, as the effects featured run the gamut from jaw-dropping invention to SyFy Channel cheese. We may be given a remarkable animated beast or we might get a hilariously crappy-looking explosion; we could see a breathtakingly smooth bit of wire-enhanced martial arts action or the actors involved might look like they're being dragged across a room by a rope. The performances are all over the map as well, ranging from quietly naturalistic to cartoonish from scene to scene. The end result of this is a rare kind of inconsistency; the sort which delightfully prevents the movie from falling into a routine rather than getting on our nerves.
The DVD transfer is solid, though a few of the special effects shots look a little spotty. Detail is strong throughout and blacks are impressively deep (a good thing, since there are quite a few darker scenes in this generally colorful flick). Flesh tones are warm and natural. The audio track is also impressive, blending an aggressive score by Peter Kam, some rambunctious sound design and dialogue quite nicely. Supplements are comprised of a handful of making-of featurettes ("The Making of Detective Dee," "Weapons, Stunts and Action," "Creating the Characters" and "The World of Dee"), a stills and poster gallery, a trailer and a QR code which supposedly unlocks additional bonus materials.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame put a big, silly grin on my face early on and kept it there for the duration of its 123-minute running time. It's a flawed movie, but in a way which is kind of delightful. Here's hoping this isn't the last we've seen of Detective Dee.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mandarin)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* QR Code