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Movie Review

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Mystery and the martial arts

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By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / September 23, 2011

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It’s the year 689, and the Dowager Empress Wu (an actual historical figure) is on the verge of being crowned China’s first female ruler. To observe the occasion, a 200-foot statue of the Buddha is being erected overlooking the imperial palace. Several strategically placed amulets are on site to ward off bad magic. Master Jia, who oversees the project, moves a couple. Shortly thereafter, he self-immolates, courtesy of what’s dubbed “the phantom flame.’’ Cause and effect? Soon thereafter, another official goes up in his own smoke - this time in full view of the empress and her court.

Visually, the phantom-flame murders are quite cool. They’re like having the “Lost’’ smoke monster stuck inside you determined to get out and not taking no for an answer.

So who you gonna call? Smokebusters not being an option, the empress summons Detective Dee. She has to spring him from prison before putting him on the case, since Dee has been there for eight years on treason charges.

Dee is based on a Chinese folk hero, Di Renjie, who inspired a series of Western detective novels by Robert Van Gulik. As played by Andy Lau, Dee is a martial arts master (Sammo Hung did the film’s fight choreography), as well as smart and flip and utterly unflappable. The last quality is almost as important as his skills at detection, since he has to deal with everything from fire beetles to sleeping smoke to a talking deer.

If all this is starting to sound a bit nonsensical, that’s as it should be. “Detective Dee’’ even has a “Release the kraken!’’ equivalent: “Release the molten metal!’’ Director Hark Tsui offers the occasional wipe and zoom, the camera equivalent of winks, to go along with lots of CGI, wire work, slow motion, and overhead shots (Tsui loves overhead shots almost as much as that deer likes to talk).

“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame’’ has a title worthy of a ’30s matinee serial, with a sensibility to match. It’s slambang in pacing, bald in exposition, and offers cast-of-hundreds spectacle.

Dee has two helpers, Jing’er and Pei. “The world is so big, but you can’t fit in,’’ the former tells Dee. “Everyone wants to kill you.’’ Might that include Jing’er and Pei? Perhaps the empress has assigned them to Dee for just that reason. Betrayal is as much a danger here as spontaneous combustion or flying daggers.

As winningly played by Li Bing Bing, Jing’er is an older, less rambunctious version of Ziyi Zhang’s character in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’’ Pei (Chao Deng) has white hair and a puckery expression. It doesn’t help his trust quotient that he looks like a Tang Dynasty version of that albino monk in “The Da Vinci Code.’’

That said, appearances can be deceiving. Good and evil are elastic concepts here. The empress (Carina Lau) freely admits to having eliminated any number of people on her way to the throne. “You have to stay alive,’’ she says. “Only then can you defeat your enemies.’’ Such practicality is impressive, though it doesn’t extend to her tonsorial tastes. Uneasy lies the head that wears such Patti LaBelle-gone-mad hairstyles.

More mystery than martial arts extravaganza, “Detective Dee’’ falls between two stools - or thrones, as the case might be. It’s not nuanced enough to succeed as a true detective story. Dee’s solutions are more plot devices than acts of deduction. Nor is “Dee’’ epic or crazed enough to reach the higher registers of costumed Asian action. Still, it moves briskly through its two-hour length, and if Robert Downey Jr.’s souped-up Sherlock Holmes is deserving of a sequel (it’s scheduled to open Dec. 16), so is Lau’s Detective Dee.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME

Directed by: Hark Tsui

Written by: Kuo-fu Chen Lin Qianyu, and Jialu Zhang

Starring: Andy Lau, Li Bing Bing, Chao Deng, Carina Lau

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 123 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (some leach-like beetles, the occasional impolite subtitle, an attempted seduction)

In Mandarin, with subtitles

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