Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a bit of a rare bird. For a martial arts heavy period piece, it has a plot that is actually far more interesting and intricate than the stunts on screen. That’s not to say that the action (choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung and overseen by director Hark Tsui) isn’t very entertaining, but the actual mystery in the film is what gives it some necessary heart and depth.
After 8 years of imprisonment for openly criticizing the woman who would become China’s first female empress (Carina Lau), the titular detective (Infernal Affairs’ Andy Lau) is released to help solve a series of spontaneous combustions of people connected to a monastery being build in her honour. To raise the stakes further for Detective Dee is the fact that if the monastery is not finished by the time of the empresses’ coronation, everyone who worked on the project will be either imprisoned or killed.
As with many of Tsui’s films, it isn’t particularly well edited and the pacing slows to a crawl at times by going over already established material, but the plot itself is really solid. The mystery plays like one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s more fantastical Sherlock Holmes stories with a different set of societal superstitions and fears.
A killer plot twist about three quarters of the way in leads to an admittedly awesome climax involving a series of elevators that is dazzling to watch, and the film wisely saves the best for last by not peaking with its best action sequences early on. A special note should also be made for the performances of Andy Lau, who plays Deeas a deeply hurt, but duty bound man who trusts everyone around him as far as he can throw them, and Chao Deng as the albino advisor Minister Pei.
Much like True Legend earlier this year, Detective Dee is another in what is shaping up to be a great revival of the Asian martial arts epic.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame opens September 23 in Toronto and Vancouver.
Cast: Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Kar-fai and Li Bingbing
Directed by: Hark Tsui
Top image: A scene from Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.