The Mandarin-language equivalent of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, minus the gravity, plus an intriguing dash of historical fact, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is proof positive that famed director Tsui Hark (The Blade, Once Upon a Time in China) still has what it takes to entertain an audience with compelling characters and style to spare.
Di Renjie (Andy Lau) was a law officer during the Tang Dynasty when he dared to speak out against Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), the woman who was destined to become China's first female emperor. Despite his remarkable skill for deductive reasoning, Di -- more commonly known by his nickname Detective Dee -- was handed a stiff prison sentence for his insolence. But now, on the eve of the empress's coronation, an ominous curse appears to have been cast over Wu Zeitan's court. Just as a towering statue of the Buddha nears completion, a number of officials literally burst into flames from the inside out -- the apparent victims of spontaneous human combustion. Recognizing that Detective Dee may be the only man skilled enough to solve the explosive mystery, Wu Zetian releases him, returns his badge, and sends him out in search of clues. Together with Wu Zeitan's loyal servant Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bingbing) and the short-fused Pei Donglai (Deng Chao), the talented sleuth begins chasing leads and interviewing subjects. As assassins emerge from the woodwork, however, it quickly becomes apparent that someone is determined to stop Detective Dee before he can crack the case.
As a visual stylist, Hark has always been second to none. Working alongside cinematographers Chi Ying Chan (DOA: Dead or Alive) and Chor Keung Chan, the veteran director gives Detective Dee a sumptuous look that gradually draws us into the mystery through a series of furtive visual clues. Meanwhile, each line of dialogue in Chia-lu Chang's screenplay falls into place with the expert pacing of a pulpy detective novel. Given that the character of Detective Dee is inspired by a real-life official of the Tang and Zhou dynasties, the history and politics in the film can be somewhat perplexing to American audiences unfamiliar with Chinese customs, though few are likely to let their attentions drift as seductive imagery, tight plotting, and exciting set pieces choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung ensure that action always remains at the forefront of the story.
The fantasy elements of Detective Dee, meanwhile, interweave with the historic realities of the film in a way that not only gives the film a unique atmosphere, but also ensures it will appeal to those who aren't necessarily familiar with the characters or politics of the era -- and Hark does a commendable job at playing up both for maximum effect. The painstaking attention to period detail is evident in everything from the sets to the costumes and the ways in which the characters interact, but when things start to get strange, Hark pulls out all the stops to give viewers a genuinely spooky spectacle.
Charismatic as always in the title role, actor/pop icon Lau portrays Detective Dee as an endearingly eccentric sleuth with a remarkable nose for sniffing out clues, and the stalwart character of a man whose sense of justice hasn't been marred by his experience with corruption. Lau's chemistry with co-star Li helps to keep tensions high as Detective Dee chases leads that continually set him at odds with the court officials, and Deng uses his striking, albino-like appearance to maximum effect while carefully straddling the line between benevolent and bad as his explosive temper keeps his true motivations shrouded in mystery. Supporting player Tony Leung Kar-Fai brings a spellbinding complexity to his role as Shatuo Zhong -- a former co-conspirator of Dee's who now oversees the Buddha's construction, and Carina Lau displays a convincing air of benevolent royalty as Empress Wu Zetian.
Though occasional uneven pacing makes Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame feel every bit its 120 minutes, Hark does his best to keep boredom at bay by making even the small scenes between action scenes gorgeous to behold. Whether you're a casual moviegoer who simply enjoys a solid fantasy mystery, or a history buff curious to witness the rebirth of a famed historical detective, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame will not only keep you entertained and guessing, but also do it with sense of excitement, atmosphere, and adventure that only a master like Hark can dream up.