Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

The year is AD 690 and the Empress Wu Zetian is soon to be inaugurated as China’s first female emperor. Two men in her court have spontaneously burst into flames, leaving just a pile of black ash behind. Apparently Wu Zetian’s ascendancy to the throne is threatened and she must determine who is out to get her. She turns to Dee Renjie (Andy Lau), a detective without peer. She knows he is the only one with the wisdom and the skills to solve this mystery. As speculative fiction, it’s based on the real life Di Renjie, who served as chancellor during Wu Zetian’s reign. Most of the plot unfolds like a whodunit blending mystery with historical drama.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a eye popping cartoon fantasy. The details are where the spectacle shines. There’s a towering Buddha statue being constructed that is a particularly majestic set piece. The production design is phenomenal. To Western audiences it’s reminiscent of pictures like Crouching Tiger or Hero. But Detective Dee is much more fanciful than either of those flicks. It’s ridiculously over the top, verging on the convoluted actually. The action is a blend of CGI and martial arts and it’s dizzying display that is a wonder to behold. The feature is a comic book brought to life. Not unlike the classic movie serials that were made in the U.S. from the golden age of 1936 to 1945, the narrative has all the hallmarks of those short subjects. We’ve got the hero, the sidekick, the heroine, the heavy. There are multiple cliffhangers, each one more hair-raising than the next. The difference is it’s all done within the context of China during the Tang dynasty. It’s fun to watch but there’s not much depth behind it.

Overall the movie succeeds in spite of its flaws. Wu Zetian, the empress of China, isn’t particularly likeable. She exiled our protagonist in prison for 8 years because she didn‘t like his opinion of her. He’s released solely because she needs his help. The chronicle is criminally overlong and it’s plodding in parts. You’ll feel every single one of those 122 minutes, And yet, there’s a lot of visual style and creativity to love here. How can you not admire a story with a talking stag? The fight choreography is courtesy of master Sammo Hung and it’s powerful, as expected. The whole film is a visually impressive spectacular. Your eyes will be engaged the entire time. Your brain? Not so much. Detective Dee is an enthralling piece of cinematic hokum.

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2 Responses to “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”

  1. I liked the movie, however, I had some issues. The great: The express’ head pieces and hair dos were AWESOME! The film was colorful and amazing. The bad: I had a hard time figuring everything out. Even after the movie ended, I wasn’t sure if I had all the answers.

  2. Nice review! Sounds and apparently looks interesting 🙂

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