The press notes for “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" refer to the prolific director Tsui Hark as a “genre master”. Complimentary at first glance, the phrase takes on shades of damning praise when it comes to 'Detective Dee,' an overstuffed period mystery with all the trappings of a wuxia epic. Wuxia, originally a literary tradition that came to silver screen prominence in the early 20th century, blossomed in the 80s and 90s, with celebrated directors like Zhang Yimou delivering films that captivated a world audience. It’s fair to say Ang Lee is responsible for awakening mainstream American interest in the genre with 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” “Detective Dee” has none of the pedigree that elevates “Hero” or even 'Crouching Tiger,' but it does feature a compelling performance by superstar Andy Lau (who American viewers may best remember from Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s “Infernal Affairs”, later remade by Martin Scorsese into "The Departed").
Tang Dynasty, China, 690 AD. Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is about to ascend the throne when an official overseeing the construction of a massive Buddha statue honoring the empress spontaneously combusts. It appears the strong-willed empress has more than a few enemies, but she struggles with how to weed them out in a male-dominated society where women are more likely to be handmaidens than advisors. With a mystery afoot, Wu Zetian calls on Detective Dee (Lau) – a man she’d most recently imprisoned as punishment for conflicting with her. Dee will team up with the empress’ sole female consort Shangguan Jing’er (Li Bingbing) and swordsman Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka Fai) to find the men responsible, all the while surviving various assassination attempts. Naturally, the conspiracy runs deeper than Dee expects and he is confronted with a menace that may literally topple the empire. All he has to rely on is his supernaturally acute sense of reading people and considerable martial arts skills – that’s wuxia for you.
The action choreography by the legendary Sammo Hung is typically excellent but not outstanding, centering on high flying action between combatants that seemingly travel on air. The settings actually stand out more so than the fight scenes, including a cavernous lair and the aforementioned Buddha statue. There is a fair amount of inventive maneuvering but hardly anything genuinely memorable -- and that's largely due to the lengthy, talky running time. At two hours, 'Dee' could stand to lose thirty minutes that would tighten up the narrative, which is frequently so invested in divulging key information that it forgets to have a little fun along the way. Considering the absurd sight of these fantastical warriors and a plot that borders on and eventually crosses into the mythical, 'Dee' is surprisingly and detrimentally straight-laced -- there is a bit of humor at the get-go, including a blind man holding his own against trained killers as comic relief, but as the stakes ramp up, the film becomes so self-serious it borders on boring.
There's a noir element mixed in with the martial arts extravaganza and happily, it's doesn't seem foreign to the genre -- like a gangster film with horror trappings, solving the mystery of the admittedly outlandish case lends itself well to the larger than life characters. Lau is appropriately cool and charismatic as Detective Dee, but unlike Robert Downey Jr., who played a similar sleuth, but without the character flaws and edge of unpredictability to undercut Dee's pompousness. Dee is capable of getting hurt, and Lau certainly isn't a lame duck when it comes to emoting, but this isn't his film -- Tsui Hark's focus is on the visuals and keeping the story moving, so Lau and the cast gets swept under as we speed along to a final half hour and a massive set piece.
'Detective Dee' doesn't so much disappoint as underwhelm. It succeeds as a mostly humorless, self-important martial arts epic, but for eye candy and portentous dialogue, the genre has plenty more to offer that might be better worth your time. [B-]