Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings film review – Tsui Hark trades political intrigue for the thrills of creature features
The director’s supernatural whodunit is diverting at times but ultimately proves a disappointing third instalment in the series; pointless CGI mayhem replaces its seventh-century mystery origins
Hong Kong action-film maker Tsui Hark’s supernatural whodunit series rolls on with this diverting yet ultimately disappointing third instalment. The film strives to bridge the events in 2010’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and its 2013 prequel Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon – only to unwittingly abandon its seventh-century mystery for some pointless CGI mayhem halfway through.
Piling on the political conflict introduced in Phantom Flame, as well as the friendly rivalry in Sea Dragon, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings begins with revered court detective Di Renjie (Mark Chao Yu-ting) – now chief of the Bureau of Investigations – being made an imperial adviser and entrusted by the emperor with a mythical weapon (“Dragon-Taming Mace”) that bestows on him absolute political standing.
Fearing the consequences of her husband’s decision, the power-hungry Empress Wu (Carina Lau Ka-ling) schemes to steal the mace back with the services of “Golden Guard” Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) – who has become close friends with Di after Sea Dragon – and an eccentric quartet of master illusionists that Wu has recruited from the streets despite their obviously opportunistic motives.
As is the norm for a Tsui movie, things get more convoluted when it transpires that both mind control and an Indian tribe once brutally persecuted by the emperor are behind the chaos reigning the palace.
Amid the sorcery overload, the film also finds time to introduce a romantic subplot involving Di’s physician sidekick, Shatuo (Lin Gengxin), and a dissident assassin (Ma Sichun, Soul Mate ) who crosses his path.
Forgoing the relative restraint that he demonstrated with his elegant use of fantasy elements in Phantom Flame, Tsui eventually goes big with an inventive range of giant monsters. Perhaps an inevitable after-effect of shooting the effects-driven spectacle Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back for Stephen Chow Sing-chi, these will doubtless excite adolescent film-goers but few others.
While once a brilliant premise, it’s now hard to see the Detective Dee series returning to narrative balance, nor where the story could meaningfully go next.
Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings opens on September 13
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