"All hell is about to break loose" shouts an opening title in Tsui Hark's latest delirium. It's the seventh century and Empress Wu is about to consolidate power with a massive public works project – a 100-story Buddha bearing her own visage. The architect is attending to finishing touches when his face turns mottled silver before exploding into flame.
Another architect is brought in. Poof! More ashes.
Someone is cooking the great engineers of China. Empress Wu consults her closest adviser, a magnificent stag. The talking deer suggests there is only one way to determine the killer. Wu must turn loose long-time foe and political prisoner, Detective Dee, China's smartest detective.
Not to mention highest jumping. What with computer animation, Tsui's Detective Dee can leap 20 metres at a bound.
To say that Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is an action-adventure movie is to describe Sidney Crosby as a hockey player. Detective Dee is the action flick of the year, a two-hour epic that blows the Pirates of the Caribbean to the Bermuda Triangle.
For the uninitiated, filmmaker Tsui was middle man in the Golden Age of Hong Kong Cinema (1985-95), producing John Woo's best films ( The Killer, A Better Tomorrow) while cranking out his own hallucinatory epics – Peking Opera Blues and Once Upon a Time in China.
Gloriously absurd, proudly poetic, his latest is a glad, giddy summation of the Saigon-born filmmaker's work. As always, there appears to be a thematic debt to Peckinpah. (Tsui studied film in cowboy country – Texas). Like all of Peckinpah's principal protagonists, the hero of Detective Dee (Andy Lau) is a loner hired to do a violent job fraught with compromise and corruption.
The Empress (Carina Lau) herself might be behind the murders. At the very least, her abiding philosophy makes employees anxious: "When one aims to achieve greatness, everyone is expendable." And the beautiful aide Wu sends to assist Detective Dee (the aptly named Bingbing Li), she could be a spy. The porcelain beauty may fall in love with Dee. Or poison him with a kiss.
As for the twitchy albino police official (Deng Chao) assigned to the case, he looks about ready to blow any time, forget whatever starter fluid the phantom flame barbecuer is using.
But we don't attend Tsui Hark films for their thematic consistency. It's the throbbing, improbable melodrama, which doesn't begin or end here with exploding architects and talking deer. For the price of admission you also get an erotic love scene interrupted by a million arrows, along with insidious fire beetles that leave victims with clear-right-through them bullet holes.
There are cheesy moments. At one point, Detective Dee fights through bomb haze. "It's sleepy smoke," he announces to what can only be the audience. There is no one else with him.
Klutzy melodrama can be part of Tsui's charm, but make no mistake he is more than an engaging primitive. As always, the filmmaker solicits credible, moving performances here. Andy Lau ( Internal Affairs) plays the title role with humour and measured grace. Carina Lau is equally good as China's Queen Victoria. But the star of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame remains its always adventurous creator.
Who else but Tsui would dare film a furious kung fu battle in a shower of apple blossom petals?
Special to The Globe and Mail
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
- Directed by Tsui Hark
- Written by Chen Kuofu
- Starring Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Bingbing Li, Tony Leung Ka-fai and Deng Chao
- Classification: 14A