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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Andy Lau, center, in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Andy Lau, center, in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Someone is killing the royal lackeys of China. In the first few minutes of Tsui Hark's kooky A.D. 690--set martial arts extravaganza, two underlings of the Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) meet mysterious, cheesily digital ends by bursting into computerized flames. As A Mighty Wind's Mike LaFontaine might say, "Wha' happened?!?" Certainly this does not bode well for Wu's coronation ceremony (she's having a towering Buddha built for the occasion, dammit!). And so the long-imprisoned and unfailingly ass-kicking Detective Dee (Andy Lau), who opposed the Empress many years before, is summoned from lockup to capture the culprit.

With the reluctant help of the sovereign's whip-cracking aide-de-campe (Li), Dee descends deeper and deeper into a hallucinatory underworld of masked assassins, poisonous fire beetles and talking deer spirits (that fight back!). The film becomes more deliriously nonsensical by the moment, which is part of its intermittent charms (as when our hero faces off with a crimson-armored killer who kicks logs around like missiles; props to action director Sammo Hung) and more frequent weariness (the CGI landscapes are budget-crunching eyesores rather than mind-expanding panoramas). As the Sherlock Holmes of the second Zhou Dynasty, Lau is so effortlessly appealing that he manages to anchor the fatigue-heavy proceedings, even when his character has to outrun both the rays of the sun---don't ask---and a collapsing statue while crawling over and under a pack of stampeding horses. Now that's star power.

Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich

Read our Q&A with director Tsui Hark!

Watch the trailer

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Written by Keith Uhlich
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