Review: 'Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame'

(Three stars)

Highly stylized and over-the-top nuttiness characterizes Tsui Hark's generic hybrid of historical epic, mystery and martial-arts extravaganza. The Steven Spielberg of Hong Kong delivers Tang Dynasty spectacle and intrigue alongside men unexpectedly bursting into flame and a magic talking deer. If you're looking for a popcorn movie, producer-director Tsui ("Once Upon a Time in China," "Seven Swords") has crafted an absurdist fantasy that might cure -- or spontaneously combust -- the summertime blues.

But even escapist entertainment can have interesting angles. Set in 689 A.D., Zhang Jialu's screenplay focuses on Wu Zetian (Carina Lau of "Infernal Affairs II") as she prepares to ascend to the throne and become the first-and-only female emperor in the history of China. Depicted more as a dragon lady than lotus blossom, she faces fierce opposition from powerful men (including Tony Leung Ka Fai of "Ashes of Time") who would rather see her dead than celebrate her impending coronation. She relies on her closest confidants (Li Bingbing and Deng Chao) for advice and protection.

This tale of ancient China attracted top talent. Andy Lau ("House of Flying Daggers," "Infernal Affairs") acts his way out from under a bad wig to play Detective Dee, freed from eight years in prison by Wu, who put him there in the first place. The detective has the steel-trap mind of Sherlock Holmes and the kung-fu skills of an action-adventure hero -- aided by veteran action director Sammo Hung's jaw-dropping choreography of the fight scenes. Dee must solve the mystery of why people are being consumed by flames, while dodging arrows and knives and masked assailants trying to kill him.

From the towering, under-construction Buddha that overlooks the coronation stage to the underworld Phantom Bazaar populated with outcasts and legendary fire turtles, the production design by Sung Pong Choo offers stunning visuals that contribute to the lavish spectacle. Although the opulent look and kinetic movement attract the eye, the plot twists demand that you pay attention.

Yet Tsui's effort doesn't measure up to the cinematic poetry of "Hero" (2002), Zhang Yimou's masterwork of sight and sound. Despite Andy Lau's star wattage, the character of Detective Dee isn't particularly engaging, and the others are unlikeable for the most part. The movie feels bloodless, a wasteland devoid of emotion.

But the China-Hong Kong co-production does share a thematic thread with "Hero": Individuals must sacrifice for the greater good of the country. Does this theme constitute a "national style," or is the message mandatory to getting a movie made in post-reunification China? Having rebels willingly bow down to authority for the sake of national unification and peace continues to surface in notable Chinese films.

That gives you something to think about while indulging in this otherwise guilty pleasure.

Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, violence and some sexuality. In Mandarin with English subtitles. 1 hour, 22 minutes.

— Susan Tavernetti

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