Action / Adventure, China, Fantasy, Films, Historical / Period, Recommended posts, Reviews

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings

The third instalment in Hark’s CGI-heavy blockbuster series is a surprisingly fun romp. With added giant albino gorilla…

Tsui Hark‘s 2010 Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame was a fun CGI romp, backed up with a stellar cast, and Sammo Hung on art and fight direction duties. Other than the stunt casting of Tony Leung Ka-fai ruining the final reveal, I enjoyed it immensely. In 2013, Hark returned to the property, with the prequel Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, replacing Andy Lau with hot young talent Mark Chau, in an even more CGI-heavy adventure. I’ll be honest, I was much less charmed by this one, it felt bloated, and crippled by under par SFX. So when I was asked to review the third film in this franchise (It’s the second prequel, fitting between the other two films. So is this just a sequel to Rise of the Sea Dragon? Or is this the third film in a trilogy? Why isn’t Dee ‘Young’ anymore?), I have to admit I was pretty pessimistic.

The good news is, the pessimism was, on the whole, unwarranted. The film starts pretty much moments after Rise of the Sea Dragon, with Dee (Mark Chao, Monga) being given the ultimate weapon and symbol of power – the Dragon Taming Mace. This seems to upset Empress Wu (Carina Lau, Ashes of Time), who directs Dee’s colleague Yuchi (Feng Haofeng, Wolf Totem) to get the Mace with the assistance of a group of powerful ne’er-do-wells from the Jianghu. Yuchi is somewhat conflicted by this instruction, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter when the real reason behind the Empresses strange behaviour is revealed – there’s another long lost tribe intent on bringing down the Tang Dynasty!

The previous film got somewhat bogged down in both the CGI and it’s water motif (the first film was underpinned by the element of Fire, this one very much by Air, I can see a fourth film…), this one finds Hark in slightly better control of the technology. Sure, there is still plenty of pandering to the 3D world, and giant Dragons, albino Apes and eyeball encrusted Giants fill the screen in the bombastic finale, but the environment seems much more solid and rooted in reality. Hark brings his trademark Dutch camera angles and inventive approach to action into play much more successfully. Sure, it’s all wirework and computer imagery, but it certainly entertains.

This film very much builds on the previous film, and whilst not completely necessary to have seen it in order to enjoy this one, it does assist in understanding the main players and their relationships.  It also does not help that Dee, Yuchi and Dee’s sidekick Shatuo (Kenny Lin, The Taking of Tiger Mountain)  spend so much of the running time apart. In fact, it is Lin who seems to be front and centre of this tale, holding together not just most of the central narrative, but also a fun romantic entanglement with Sandra Ma’s assassin Water Moon. Lin reminds me of a young Takeshi Kaneshiro, with a boyish charm that I suspect will eventually make him a superstar. Ma herself is a huge amount of fun, and a throwaway line about Shatuo’s ethnic heritage from the previous film finally gets to pay off, leading to a fun (albeit unoriginal) pairing that clearly is going to pay dividends if that fourth film is made.

The Detective Dee films have never really been about detective work, which I personally find a shame, but I am glad Hark decided to eschew the Guy Ritchie-esque visual cues that are meant to show us what a great detective Dee is. It’s a shame Chao is almost a secondary player in this one though – he plays Dee with a kind of know-it-all control that makes him such an interesting character. I just wanted more of both him and of Feng Haofeng.

Tying it all together is Carina Lau’s Empress Consort Wu Zetian. The only person to appear in all three films, she plays it big and loud, and is clearly having some fun with the role. Indeed, it is her character arc that seems to hold the trilogy together, with this film very much laying the groundwork for the first film (we just need to see what gets Dee imprisoned and the circle will be complete).

At the end of the day, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is a noisy and brash, big-budget Chinese CGI laden fantasy film. Your enjoyment is going to be tempered by just how much you enjoy this kind of thing. It lacks the fun and energy of Hark’s earlier, more manually inventive works, such as Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain. But, there is a lot of distinctive character work here that isn’t lost under the bright and flashy CGI effects. Kenny Lin and Sandra Ma give the film a human aspect that raises it above the mundane to the pretty darn enjoyable. It’s far from perfect, but way better than I expected, by a long margin.

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings was released in the UK by Cine Asia.

About the author

Stephen Palmer
Millionaire Playboy by day, Masked Avenger for Justice by Night, Stephen battles...... Oh ok, I am an English Film Geek who also publishes his own ramblings on More »
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