Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
An opulently entertaining kung-fu epic steeped in visual excess, Detective Dee is big on spectacle but has a typically relaxed Chinese attitude towards narrative; the title character doesn't even pop up for the first 20 minutes or so. Master action director Tsui Hark is too busy setting the scene and burning retinas with his gorgeously rendered CGI backdrops and armies of live action extras.
The setting is seventh century China, where a massive public works project building a towering Buddha statue is falling behind due to the alarming spontaneous combustions of its key foremen. In order to be ready for the coronation of a controversial empress, the powers that be are forced to pardon maverick investigator and political prisoner Dee Renjie (Andy Lau), the only man with the skills to handle both palace intrigue and absurd supernatural threats. Shapeshifters, flying mystery assassins and even attacks by talking deer don't faze him; he takes the Dana Scully approach to debunking the paranormal, and if that fails, he's ready to just kick the tar out of the problem.
Andy Lau has been a Cantopop icon and matinee idol for decades, but has matured out of his '90s pretty boy roles into sturdier stuff. While not a powerhouse martial artist like Jet Li, Lau is fluid enough to keep pace here, especially because much of the action is wire and/or computer assisted. He's matched in ability by starlet Bingbing Li, who can act and fight with equal grace. It doesn't hurt that the stunts were choreographed by Hong Kong legend and Jackie Chan pal Sammo Hung, or that director Hark (Once Upon a Time in China) essentially perfected the modern form of fantasy sword fighting flicks called wuxia. All of this feels like a return to the thrilling salad days of HK action — but with a contemporary spin. Even if Detective Dee isn't as emotionally resonant as recent Zhang Yimou classics like House of Flying Daggers (also starring Andy Lau), it's certainly skillful enough to hold open the gate and let the past and future rumble.
Opens Friday, Sept. 23, at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.