Big Trouble in Ancient China

Detective Dee rattles around an imperial city searching for a pyro who is bursting people into flames.

Mr. Dee has a tough job saving a Chinese empress from violent, mysterious forces while avoiding warring factions and poisoned crossbow bolts. It would be much easier if Dee had some help. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of people aiding his cause; they’re just all so thin they seem drawn on rice paper.

Let’s begin at the beginning: It’s China, late seventh century, and Empress Wu is set to be the first woman to ascend to the kingdom’s throne. But a series of fiery deaths — seemingly inflicted by religious icons — stir fear in the royal jet set. The empress (Carina Lau) frees Detective Dee (Andy Lau), a revolutionary doing hard time, to investigate the murders. Assisting him is the empress’s right-hand woman, as well as an albino supreme court investigator and a comrade of Dee from his dissident days.

This has the potential to be a decent flick: surreal shots of a Buddha statue the size of the Space Needle, gobs of palace intrigue and Dee himself, a Sherlock Holmes-type tossing off one-liners as if Confucius replaced Iced-T in Law and Order. But when the action shifts away from Dee, the movie gets muddled with too many characters and motives. They all have potential, but not enough time to interest the viewer. We don’t learn the desires driving the royal servant, the supreme court investigator or even Empress Wu herself.

It’s too bad, too, because Detective Dee gets gorgeous and weird. “It’s a spooky pandemonium,” a character says at one point, describing a place known as the Phantom Bazaar, where the kingdom’s outcasts huddle in caves. The Buddha statue dwarfs the imperial city — and the movie screen — with regal intimidation. There’s also a ventriloquist shaman who speaks through deer, something called transfiguration, swarms of black-hooded assassins, and a decent dose of spontaneous combustion.

The unmasking of the villain and the movie’s conclusion were ultimately satisfying. But while Detective Dee serves justice to the empress and the kingdom, the film never quite does justice to Detective Dee. 

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