Expectations can be funny things, can't they? I've been disappointed by films that promised more than they could deliver, and I've been pleasantly surprised by films that knock it so far out of the park your eyes water. Often though, it can be best to approach a film with little to no expectations at all; just opening yourself up to whatever cinematic delights may be presented to you.
However, sometimes you cannot help but have certain expectations for some films. You can be fairly certain Michael Bay is going to blow some shit up at "magic hour", for example. My initial expectations for Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame were along the lines of "Sherlock Holmes with kung-fu". I was sorely let down on both of those counts. You know you’re in trouble when the kung-fu clips from the pre-show program outdo anything that follows in the feature film.
The plot, though seemingly simple in it’s set-up, becomes over-complicated and something of a mess. In ancient China, the current Empress is the first female to rule the land. She is something of a placeholder ruler who is soon to be permanently installed on the throne. To celebrate, a gargantuan statue of herself is being constructed – the type of statue you climb up inside and that can be considered (once finished) a bonafide wonder of the ancient world. Except it may not be finished, as important clerks involved in it’s construction keep bursting into inexplicable flame. Bit of a bother that, when you’re trying to cement your rule with a blimmin’ great tribute to your ever-lovin’ self. As the top cop sent to investigate finds himself quickly becoming a different sort of BBQ pork, the banished Detective Dee is summoned to the scene of the crime. And there seems to be a ton of back-story to his banishment that is touched upon but that I ultimately found redundant and that only weighs the story down. He and the Empress had a bit of an argy-bargy that lead to his imprisonment, though Dee once had a connection with the old Emperor who apparently gifted him with a nifty spinning staff thingy that can find any weakness. Handy that. Also, Dee’s old Watson is working on the Empress’ statue. And chuck in an albino cop, the Empress’ maidservant sent to spy on Dee and a couple of face-changing shape shifters while you’re at it.
As you can see, economical with story, this ain’t. In fact, Detective Dee is over long, fairly tedious and more than a little boring. Even the action scenes, which you could normally count on to spice things up, fall flat. Even with fight choreography by the legendary Sammo Hung, they don’t make ‘em like they used to. This is, yes, in part due to the disappearance of the old kung-fu/Chinese opera schools (because they were brutal and physical schools that took a flying kick over the line into child abuse) but also down to director Tsui Hark relying on a lot of poor digital FX. This only serves to make the action as weightless and dull as any number of poor quality Hollywood action films.
And Hark never seems to be sure on what he wants the film to be. Instead he tries to make it too many things at once – Chinese blockbuster, ancient epic, supernatural mystery, goofy comedy… none of them really hit home and gives the sense of Detective Dee veering drunkenly from tone to tone. If there was a sense of fun to proceedings that would have forgiven a lot but everything is played with such a straight face that the film plods when it should fly. A real disappointment.