Volume 81, Number 15 | September 8 - 14, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

DETECTIVE DEE AND
THE MYSTERY OF THE
PHANTOM FLAME

Directed by Tsui Hark
Rated PG-13
122 minutes
In Mandarin, with English subtitles
At Angelika Film Center (18 W. Houston St.)
For info, angelikafilmcenter.com and releasing.indomina.com

Photo courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival and Indomina Media

Martial artsy: Any Lau, as the titular character of “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.”

Reimagined history: Chinese action style!
Detective flick tells epic tale on appropriately grand scale

BY SCOTT STIFFLER

You won’t get much of a history lesson by watching this self-proclaimed “fantastical steampunk version of ancient China.” But Tsui Hark’s popcorn-friendly epic does deliver a damn fine sprint through the intrigue-infused time when the country feverishly prepared for the coronation of its first empress. Lost to the history books, it seems, is the part where that Tang dynasty celebration was nearly foiled by a series of assassinations (victims were mysteriously consumed, from the inside out, by phantom flames).

Our titular hero is a brilliant former lawman who emerges from years of exile. Skillfully riffing on everything from film noir to westerns to wronged cop revenge tales, capable sleuth Detective Dee (scorned by his peers, of course) proceeds to methodically crack the case by virtue of his superior skills and, well, superior virtue.

When the future empress welcomes a long-bearded Dee back from years of bleak prison labor, it’s not long before the freshly-shorn Sherlock-like detective (sporting his old signature duds, badge and one-of-a-kind “dragon-taming mace” weapon) is joined by a pair of ass-kicking Watsons (a royal court confidant and an albino policeman) who literally move heaven and earth to discover who’s been immolating those tasked with constructing a 600-foot Buddha statue that simply must be finished before coronation day arrives.

Each time we’re told how indestructible that statue is (earthquakes and hurricanes won’t even smudge it), we become more and more certain that sturdy old Buddha’s gonna crumble by the time the credits roll. It does, of course — spectacularly.

“Dee” wears its telegraphed plot points and Asian cinema action tropes like shiny, defiant badges of honor. Director Hark crafts his witches brew of gravity-defying fights, secret identities and obscure clues with self-awareness and conviction. The result is a confident genre romp that makes you want to pump your fists when you should be rolling your eyes.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that after our hero’s redemption, duty obligates him to retreat back into exile — with, of course, the implied possibility of a sequel. A trilogy wouldn’t be a bad idea.

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