Volume 20, Number 50 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | April 27 - May 3, 2011
Photo courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival
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
DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME
Directed by Tsui Hark.
In Mandarin, with English subtitles.
Thurs., Apr. 28, 9:30pm, at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea (260 W. 23rd St., btw. 7th & 8th Aves.).
For tickets ($16), purchase at the Box Office or call 646-502-5296 or visit www.tribecafilm.com.
REVIEW 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 coronation was nearly foiled by a series of assassinations (victims were mysteriously consumed, from the inside out, by phantom flames).
Just be glad we’re living in the age of digital filmmaking — where this scenario and others can be brought to the screen in so stunning a manner that you’ll repeatedly thank yourself for having the good sense to get off the couch and into a comfy cinema seat whose gargantuan cup holder matches, proportionally, the grand scale of “Detective Dee.”
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 the 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.
Given the sheer amount of telegraphed plot points and Asian cinema action tropes trotted out with astounding regularity, you might very well think “Dee” is nothing more than a string of clichés. Well, it is. But the utterly unique variations on its well-worn themes (deftly achieved by the screenwriter, director, cinematographer, cast, set designer and, especially, the art director) combine to make this easily one of the best action films — Asian or otherwise — ever. Highly recommended, and essential viewing on the big screen.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that after our hero’s redemption, duty and country obligate him to retreat back into exile — with, of course, the implied possibility of a sequel. Here’s hoping it turns into a trilogy.