Despite a charismatic performance by Lau and convincing work from cast and crew, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame succeeds on a technical scale but doesn’t remain especially memorable.

As the undisputed king of big-budget wuxia films, Tsui Hark seems to have cherry-picked the cast and crew for his 43rd film, the big budget epic mystery Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Loosely based on Robert van Gulik€™s series of books centering on Judge Dee, an especially astute investigator working during the Chinese Tang Dynasty, Tsui Hark€™s film takes plays fast and loose with history but keeps the set pieces humming and generally doesn€™t overstay its welcome until about 90 minutes in. The final stretch is laborious, with an already convoluted plot taking on new strands, while the final showdown, set inside a skyscraper of a Buddha statue, is conceptually impressive but not particularly interesting to watch.

The year is 690 AD and Chinese history is about to be written as Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) takes the final steps necessary for her to seize the throne and become the first female emperor in the country€™s history. This news doesn€™t sit well with the imbedded male hierarchy and when one of the key architects supervising the construction of an 260-foot Buddha internally combusts, Empress Zetian pulls Detective Dee (Andy Lau) out of forced retirement €“ the renowned investigator has been rotting in prison for almost a decade ever since he dared oppose her rise to the throne. With assassins in pursuit, the detective, accompanied by the empress€™s right hand woman Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bingbing) and albino swordsman Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka Fai), endeavors to solve the case before the coronation. As more victims succumb to the €œphantom flame€, Dee uncovers an overtly intricate whodunit with more players than we can keep an eye on.

Perhaps it's vital to mention both Detective Dee and his assailants are phenomenally skilled martial artist, capable of taking flight when necessary. This is wuxia trademark and certainly not a point of contention for this reviewer - Tsui Hark is more than up to the task, shooting the legendary Sammo Hung€™s hard-hitting but elegant choreography with plenty of old-school flair. It€™s such a relief to be able to tell what€™s going on spatially most of the time that I was willing to look past a number of other faults.

When the latest film in the Fast and Furious franchise clocks in at over two hours (is that technically considered irony?), its difficult to talk about bloated run-times without pointing the finger back right at the old US of A. That said, Detective Dee suffers from an overlong set-up that dovetails into a mystery film. The screenplay by Chen Kuofu is focused on building up set pieces while juggling multiple red herrings that it neglects to offer any emotionally relevant character development.

If this is an attempt by a Hong Kong film to match American-set blockbuster standards, Detective Dee is certainly an acceptable genre flick in its own right. But if keeping up with boilerplate formulas for epic period films means taking on their limitations as well, I€™d much rather have a flighty 90-minute wuxia film on my screen than a grandiose two hour extravaganza that wears the viewer down before it blows its load on that one decisive sequence that moves the environment destruction to large-scale and throws as many faceless henchman at our protagonist as possible. Despite a charismatic performance by Lau and convincing work from cast and crew, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame succeeds on a technical scale but doesn€™t remain especially memorable. That€™s all right though €“ there€™s probably a sequel on the way.

Detective Dee & The Mystery of the Phantom Flame is out now on Blu-ray.

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