Certain films necessitate certain expectations. Today, it isn’t realistic to go to the movie theater and not have any idea of what you’re going to be watching. Audiences normally want what they expect, and an intelligent director will create a movie that meets that demand. You don’t watch “Transformers” for deep relationships between characters; you watch it for robots crashing into each other. So, when judging the quality of a movie, you not only have to ask yourself “Was the movie good?” but also, “Was the movie good within its standards?”

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

At the Michigan
Indomina Releasing

“Detective Dee” is a film that excels within its confines, these confines being “kung-fu movie.” Audiences don’t look for a plot that makes too much sense and characters that have much more depth than a pothole in this type of movie: They want action and they want fun, both of which “Dee” delivers plenty of. The characters fly through imperial palaces and underground canals battling assassins and solving mysteries, while princes and priests plot to overthrow kingdoms. There are magical weapons, talking deer, poisoned arrows and blind warriors. In other words, “Dee” is crazy, but fun as hell if you are willing to throw away your “whys” and “whats.”

Director Tsui Hark (“Seven Swords”) and fight choreographer Sammo Hung (known for his work with Jackie Chan and John Woo) work hard to create scenes that look pulled from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “House of Flying Daggers.” It’s not an extremely refreshing design but rather one that seems almost the standard in this type of film. All the same, the sharp colors and extravagant scenes are beautiful to look at. The movements of the characters, both in and out of combat, are taut. Each step is calculated and occasionally mesmerizing, sometimes culminating into a point where all one can do is exclaim, “Awesome.” Obvious care has been taken to make each individual scene a work of art, and the scenes more or less succeed.

Still, the fighting can be at times underwhelming. Everyone’s seen flying warriors glide across the screen in many films by now, and while still beautiful, it isn’t necessarily ground-breaking.

As expected in a film this eclectic, the plot can at times wear thin. “Dee” provides a frame for the characters to move through, but it never really succeeds in building a complete picture. Clues are presented not so much to test the audience, but instead to give the Detective reason to move from one wonderfully imagined locale to another. Ultimately, while the story presents itself as a “mystery,” it fails to break away from the martial arts standards that we expect. At times you feel as though “Dee” needs a little less Jet Li, and a little more Philip Marlowe.

In the end, we have to ask ourselves, what is really important in a martial arts film? Would we like to see “Dee” really push the boundaries of what the genre can produce, hoping that it would achieve the genius of a film like “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” or should we be satisfied with a slightly different and thoroughly entertaining “Crouching Tiger” lookalike? In one sense, “Dee” is a success. In another, though, it leaves us wanting.

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