The latest directorial effort from legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark 2010's Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame seems like more of a crowd pleaser than some of his other more recent offerings. Colorful, packed full of interesting characters and featuring some great effects and set design, it's a fantastical blend of action and mystery that, despite a few snags here and there, turns out to be a whole lot of fun.
Andy Lau plays Dee Renjie, a Tang Dynasty era detective who has been exiled by Empress Wu Zetien (Carina Lau) for opposing her rise to power. Wu had a change of heart, however, when a string of unusual murders cause panic just before she is to go through with her coronation ceremony. Wanting a stop put to the killings before the ceremony goes down, she brings Dee back to the Imperial Palace where she hopes he'll be able to use his sleuthing skills to save the day. She appoints him Chief Judge of the Empire and sends him out to figure out just what the heck is going on by whatever means he deems necessary. Dee's task will introduce him to a strange cast of characters, from a one-armed man to an albino to a priest who is able to use animals to communicate - but no one is safe from Dee, who will use not only his brain power but his martial arts skills as well in order to finish the job, that is, if the traps and perils and pitfalls and double crossers don't take him out first!
Slick, colorful and wonderfully shot, the first thing that you'll notice about Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame is just how good it looks. While there's a LOT of CGI used throughout this movie (a scene in which a character burns and some shots of a giant statue really stand out as incredibly fake looking) both in the background and the foreground of the film, the production values are still impressive, from the set design to the props to the costumes. With much of the plot centering around the coronation ceremony, the film revolves around all the pageantry and pomp you'd expect from something as culturally important as the inauguration of a new empress. This allows Hark and company to do great things with color and with light, to really bring out all the ornate detail that's there. Accenting this in interesting ways are the more fantastical elements that the movie plays around with so well, though there are times where the film seems unsure how much stock it wants to put into the 'real world' aspects of its story compared to the more 'fantastic' bits that creep into the storyline.
Front and center in all of this is Andy Lau as the eccentric lead character. His Dee is an interesting man, a brilliant mind who has the fighting skills to match, making his character a mix of Sherlock Holmes and Wong Fai Hung - it's hard not to see the influence of Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary creation and it's impossible to dispute the influence of China's most famous folk hero and they turn out to be a great match. Always reliable, Lau plays the part well, handling himself with style and confidence during the action scenes but also displaying the intelligence that he's shown in some of his other work, Infernal Affairs being a good example. Carina Lau is a good casting choice for the Empress, as she brings a certain sense of nobility to the part that suits the character well, and she looks absolutely regal here. Supporting performances from Tony Leung Ka Fai and Bingbing Li are notable, but for the most part this is Andy Lau's show, and he basically steals it.
As far as the action scenes go, for some, knowing that they're choreographed by Sammo Hung will be enough to ensure their status as awesome, but there are some spots here where the mix of CGI and live action doesn't always gel the way that you might want it to. Sammo's work is almost always top notch and he's come up with some creative and interesting ways to stage the combat here, but when the computers take over, it can be not only obvious but even jarring. How much this will affect your enjoyment of the movie will obviously depend on how susceptible you are to such things, but the use of CGI is heavy here and it does take away from certain scenes more than it should. Overall though, this movie is a blast. At just over two hours it never seems to drag, the cast and crew all do a great job, and the visuals are as atmospheric as they are beautiful.
Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame looks great in this AVC encoded 2.35.1 widescreen 1080p high definition transfer from Vivendi. Depth is impressive here but even more impressive is the color reproduction. There are a lot of scenes here that really pop, that leap off the screen at you and which really show off the cinematography and design work that the film makes such great use of. There are no problems with compression artifacts and detail is generally strong throughout, though some scenes which use heavy CGI aren't quite as sharp looking as others. Some minor banding is noticeable here and there but it's not ever to the point where it becomes distracting. Skin tones look lifelike, black levels are strong and there are no noticeable problems with compression artifacts though some mild edge enhancement isn't too hard to spot if you're looking for it. Texture is great, you can really soak up a lot of the intricacies of the costumes used in the movie, and all in all the movie looks very good in high definition on this release.
The primary audio option on this disc is a Mandarin language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, though those who prefer the English dubbed option are given a Dolby Digital Stereo option. Subtitles are provided in both English and French. Getting back to that lossless track, it sounds pretty good. The film makes great use of the surround channels, especially during the action scenes, so expect a good amount of sound effects to zip past you in addition to some great directionality in terms of how the score is used here. Dialogue stays clean and clear, the subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors, and the levels are properly balanced throughout. All in all, this is a very lively and active mix and a very enjoyable one at that.
There are a few featurettes included here but they're all fairly brief. The first, The Making Of Detective Dee (4:06), is a general behind the scenes piece while Weapons, Stunts And Action (3:50) takes a look at the fight choreography and stunt work that makes the movie so much fun. Creating The Characters (5:17) gives us some brief insight into the people who populate the world that the movie takes place in while The World Of Dee (5:14) takes a look at the film's design work. Rounding out the extras are a still gallery, the film's international theatrical trailer, trailers for a few other Vivendi releases, animated menus and chapter stops. The case comes housed inside a slipcase featuring identical cover art and text as the case cover. There's also a QR code included on the packaging that you can scan to access additional stuff on your smart phone if you're into that.
Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame finds Tsui Hark back in fine form. A great mix of action, fantasy, mystery and suspense the movie is relentlessly entertaining and just a whole lot of fun from start to finish. Vivendi's Blu-ray comes up a bit short in the extra features department but it looks and sounds great and as such, comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.