Where’s DJ Dmitry and Lady Miss Kier?
An enormous blockbuster overseas, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame has been described by many (including me, now) as “Sherlock Holmes meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” North Americans are now getting their first look at the epic action/mystery on Blu-ray.
It’s 690 AD. China is about to crown its first female emperor, and a giant Buddha is being constructed in the center of the city. When construction workers begin catching fire with no explanation, many believe supernatural forces are at work. A detective, Pei (Chao Deng, Assembly), believes the cause is something more earthly and criminal. The empress’s spiritual advisor instructs her to call in help on the case, so she summons the legendary Detective Dee (Andy Lau, House Of Flying Daggers), who is in jail on charges of treason. The empress assigns badass sword-swinging babe Jing’er (Bingbing Li, The Forbidden Kingdom) to keep an eye on Dee during the investigation, in case he gets all treasonous again. Amid their bickering, Dee, Jing’er, and Pei work together to solve the case, facing off against assassins, exploring a criminal underworld, and kung fu fighting their way from one clue to the next.
This movie has huge action and stunning cinematography, but there’s one big problem. I can’t figure out why Detective Dee the character is in Detective Dee the movie. The flick begins by introducing us to Pei, a cool detective who does awesome martial arts. Then we meet Dee, also a cool detective who does awesome martial arts. Redundancy aside, I’m not clear on what, exactly, Dee wants. What’s his “motivation” as uppity actors in comedy sketches like to say? Is Dee hoping to gain his freedom by solving the case? Does he wish to prove his loyalty to the empress and rid himself of the “treason” label? If this is what he wants, that could be made clearer. Instead, Dee just kind of hangs around, as the other characters take him from place to place and basically do everything for him. The filmmakers try to establish some sexual tension between Dee and Jing’er, but because we don’t know enough about Dee, this falls flat. Likewise, attempts at a rivalry between Dee and Pei, as well as a plot twist with someone from Dee’s past, also fall flat because we don’t know enough about Dee. He does get his big hero moment in the film’s finale, but by then it’s too late.
In every screenwriting class anyone will ever take, the question “What are the stakes?” will be batted around endlessly. In this movie, the stakes have to do with the empress’s reign in danger. But, a good script must have personal stakes as well. Therefore, what are the personal stakes for Dee? We never know. If saving the empress is his sole motivation, we never get a feel for that. Casual movie fans might argue that as long as Dee is stoic and has cool kung fu moves, then that’s all the movie needs. I disagree. The stoic, cool Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day had personal stakes (protect John Connor). The stoic, cool man with no name in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly had personal stakes (the gold). We have no idea what the stoic, cool Detective Dee wants. I get that he’s based on a real historical figure and has been in a bunch of old-timey pulp adventures, but as far as this movie is concerned, he’s a non-character, and that drags the whole thing down.
This criticism is too bad, because there’s a lot to like in Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Most obvious is the production design and cinematography, both of which will take your breath away. The sets are gigantic, mammoth in both size and detail. The interior of the giant Buddha is the most elaborate set, allowing a lot of space for the characters to leap around. My favorite, though, is the underground cavern where our heroes duke it out with a red-cloaked baddie. It’s a dark, gloomy set, with rock crags looming over a subterranean lake and it looks incredibly cool. Cinematography junkies will love this one.
Movie fans are divided on the whole wire fu thing. Some think it provides awesome fight scenes, while others scoff that it’s too unrealistic. I say it depends on the context of the movie in question. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon it works, because only characters who had a specific kind of training could fly around and ordinary folks couldn’t. In something like Daredevil, characters who do not have gravity-defying powers defy gravity, and it’s ridiculous. As for Detective Dee, there’s a moment early on in which Pei soars majestically across a room rather than just walking. Is this excessive and silly? Yes, but it’s important, because it shows that the movie takes place in a world in which everybody can just do that. If you can get around the wire fu, the fight choreography is solid, with a ton of cool moves. It’s filmed nicely, too, without too many confusing quick cuts.
The Blu-ray looks brilliant in 2.35:1/1080p. The colors are bright and vivid, and the detail really stands out throughout. The DTS-HD audio, in both the original 5.1 Mandarin and a 2.0 English dub, is good as well, especially during the mass destruction in the film’s finale. For extras, we’ve got featurettes on weapons, stunts, characters, and the overall “world” of the film. This is rounded out with poster and still galleries and the theatrical trailer. I fear something’s gone wonky with the English translation. A plot point has to do with a specific kind of animal, which the subtitles alternatively refer to as “beetles” and “turtles.”
Beautiful-looking movie, screenplay needed more work. Martial arts fanatics might dig it, but everyone else might walk away unfulfilled.