Crafting big scale stories with equal balance between authentic and CG filming is never not risky. Long-standing film favorite Tsui Hark didn’t exactly impress as much as he might have wanted in partnership with Yuen Woo-Ping for Miracle Fighters reprisal, The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia, but the journey forward is always one that stands to gain with its share of improvements.
Assuredly, some of them are made visible with grand appeal to fans of the Detective Dee franchise now looking forward to the next installment, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings. The VFX-heavy affair seen here is much ado with the world our title hero lives in, played once again by Andy Lau’s prequel counterpart, returning actor Mark Chao since leading the 2013 prequel.
Actress Carina Lau makes her regal re-entrance into the trilogy as Empress Wu opposite our title hero who is newly appointed as an investigator by Emperor Gaozong who bestows unto Dee an intricately-crafted mace to ward off evil and protect the Tang Dynasty. Wu, on the other hand, has plans of her own, so it seems; She summons the head of the royal guard to collect five jianghu mystics with unique gifts to steal the mace so she can claim the throne for herself.
What ensues is a tale of intrigue and sleight of hand that sees our protagonist staying as many careful steps ahead as possible while seeking his own answers with the help of fellow cohort Sha Tuo (Kenny Lin) and the Emperor’s Golden Guard commander, Yuchi (William Feng). A myriad of beasts and assassins give chase in a sprawling case that ultimately endangers the Imperial court, and it’s only a matter of time before Dee’s own investigation uncovers more sinister forces at work, including an evil, begrudged sorceror with an old score to settle.
The mace itself is the McGuffin of the film driving our characters forward amidst a web of intricate plot execution; The alleged theft of a painting is the offshoot of our tale that springs our hero detective into action, followed by the scattered appearance of a mysterious symbol linked to a cult of Indian mystics who once served the pre-existing Emperor, Empress’s Wu’s secret counsel with an enigmatic faceless dungeon prisoner, Sha Tuo’s sudden connection with a jianghu mystic assassin (Ma Sichun), and Dee’s spiritual guidance from Buddhist monk Sanzang and his disciple, Yuan Ce (Ethan Juan), all play a role in the explosive unfolding mystery leading up to the grand battle in the third act.
Chao has several aspects going for him in his delivery of Dee Renjie; His unassuming build speaks counter to the archetypical wuxia hero. His athletic upkeep isn’t as showy as many of the players in this film, but he can still move when required, all the while his intellectual cunning and judge of character are even stronger assets in his deductive reasoning.
Hark does manage to implement some comedy to color up the dark, supernatural millieu encompassing our characters. The action and fantasy spectacle are largely key to the narrative and with respect to my opening statements, Hark puts on a much better show this time around blending average and mild CG visuals to culminate the film’s authentic stunt and fight scene from action director Lin Feng.
Kenji Kawai’s score is nothing outstanding from his usually more impressive work on films like Hark’s Seven Swords or even the energizing soundtrack he assembled for Sato Shinsuke’s The Princess Blade. It serves its purpose, however, in carrying the film’s epic journey from start to finish.
Moviegoers alike, whether already familiar or new to the Detective Dee franchise, will find something refreshing to extrapolate from this third franchise outing from Hark. Blockbuster fantasy filmmaking in China will always have its winners, losers and middle-of-the roaders while Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings, graciously sits on the better end of the scale – which isn’t to say there’s no need for improvement. Obviously there is.
Simply put, while visuals fall short of their best, our legendary director knows how to tell an amazing and fun story with great scope and palpable, uplifting messages. It helps that Hark assembled a raft of great acting talent to display some terrific, intriguing characters, and sizeable action as an auteur who isn’t afraid to push the envelope.
Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings opens theatrically on July 27 in China from Huayi Brothers Pictures and CKF Pictures, in North America from Well Go USA, and to the U.K. from Cine Asia.