Hearkening back to Tsui Hark’s early films—when the Hong Kong action maestro haphazardly combined genres, the way a bratty kid in a school cafeteria mixes the contents of his lunchbox—Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame is a historical epic with elements of wu xia, supernatural thrillers, and drawing-room murder mysteries. When several of the empress’ most valuable advisors spontaneously combust while preparing for her coronation, the empress (Carina Lau) calls on master detective Andy Lau, a powerful intellect and skilled martial artist whom she exiled for treason after she ascended to the throne. As the detective questions the other top men in the empress’ sphere, he discovers that plenty of people would like to see her out of power. But that only raises doubts in his mind about the motivation behind the entire investigation. Is it possible that the empress herself is trying to eliminate everyone in her court with ties to the old guard?
Detective Dee is a proper mystery, in that the hero assembles clues and periodically explains why some seemingly minor tidbit of information is actually significant. But not many detectives carry a magic mace that can detect the flaws in other weapons, and not many detective stories feature talking deer, or characters whose faces transform when the right accupoints in their necks are pressed. Detective Dee’s action choreography (supervised by Sammo Hung) looks a little slow until the movie’s thrilling 10-minute climactic fight, and the special effects look a little cheap, aside from a worthy-of-Ray-Harryhausen monster whose individual parts keep fighting after being severed. But what makes Detective Dee worthy of Hark is that the action is always thematically justified, underscoring who our champion is. The detective has no real use for any royalty, for example, but he’s sympathetic to history and tradition, if only because he knows firsthand that just because you chop a beast to bits doesn’t mean it’ll surrender