Link to a formal review at the end.
I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes books. I’m a relative fan of the Basil Rathbone series, loved Wilder’s interpretation, and have found a few other worthwhile over the years. So what really bugs me about Guy Ritchie’s current version(s) (aside from the fact that I love to complain about Guy Ritchie) is that the name of Holmes seems to be in place for purely marketing reasons. Sure there’s a Dr. Watson, Moriarty, etc, but there’s very little of the logician at work here.
2011 has seen at least two films released that are more Holmes than Holmes. One is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I’ll be writing about shortly. The other is this overlooked film from Hark Tsui – Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
It’s title a throwback to old mystery novels (“NAME OF DETECTIVE + NAME OF MYSTERY”), the film is an expert combination of tried and true detective narratives (think Holmes, but also Poirot or even Charlie Chan) and the tradition of wartime/martial arts Chinese flicks.
Detective Dee (Andy Lau) comes out of an 8 year exile to solve a mysterious series of spontaneous combustions linked to the building of a new Buddha statue in honor of the impending coronation of China’s first Empress, Wu (Carina Lau).
There are a few problems that I note in my review. One is the pretty bad CG job throughout. The beginning of the film actually looks animated. Because the framing is dominated by wide-shots early-on the computer generated images make up the bulk of the background. It feels tacky and as though there’s lighting discontinuity. Low budget doesn’t seem to be the issue here – I never really felt Detective Dee’s budget constraints elsewhere.
There’s also the classic problem of “bad guy relating his plan to trapped/doomed good guy at the end, but really explaining it to the uninformed audience member” that was so well parodied by Austin Powers. This latter problem really threw me and came close to ruining the third act, but luckily it’s saved in two ways: 1) Dee was already aware, and doesn’t use this explanation as stalling time to get free or form a new plan, and 2) The plan is still logical and, if you follow closely enough, you might be able to figure it out concurrent with the explanation.
There’s an odd thing about the look of Detective Dee, at least in the first act, that goes beyond the aforementioned CG. Something in the lighting looks too high-key. At times it looked like a strange – not necessarily bad, just strange – green-screen job, but other times it simply looked like the amount of light coming in from outside didn’t match up with the amount of light being thrown on the characters inside. Maybe it’s just a poor job by the cinematographer, but it’s something I don’t frequently notice to this extreme.
Still, there’s plenty to like in Detective Dee. For one, there’s a scene that I mention in passing in the review, but deserves further consideration. Dee and two of his sidekicks descend into an underground cavern to find a suspect. There, they run across a red-robed, masked figure whom they refer to as The Chaplain. The Chaplain has the ability to split into multiple figures at once, and he seems to be extremely powerful, making the fight between the 4(+) of them all the more difficult – and entertaining.
While I note in my review that this sequence is successful because Tsui doesn’t rely heavily on fast editing, but instead lets the choreography and production design speak for itself, that’s not the only reason for it’s success. For one, there’s a great use of sound design predicting actions and events. It’s classic technique, just used extremely well here. Think: silence, followed by a menacing/vague sound, characters look around for its source, something appears either where they’re looking (they’re ready for it), or somewhere else (surprise!). You’ve seen this in every thriller or horror film. The difference here is that Tsui doesn’t make the surprise the horrific/scary moment, but makes the sound and the suspense of the sound the tensest part of the sequence.
There’s also some really solid, understated shot selection that pieces together a rapid series of POVs and tells a purely visual story. It’s such a great moment that I don’t want to give away too much, but suffice to say that when Dee and company are battling The Chaplain there are, at certain times, three crosscuts going on with about seven people looking to each other. This is more difficult than it sounds, not only because of eyeline matching and the 180 line, but also because of the extreme movement from the martial arts and that all but three of the characters have their eyes covered by masks. If you’ve ever seen The Seven Samurai, think of the piecing together of those battle scenes in Kurosawa’s masterpiece. Not that Detective Dee is on that same level, but the task is similar.