Movie review in the Friday, Oct. 14 Oregonian....
In Chinese history, Di Renjie was a respected chancellor under China's only ruling empress, Wu Zetian. In pop culture, he's enjoyed a fictional career as a crimefighter -- on Chinese television and in Robert van Gulik's "Judge Dee" novels (derived from a 1700s Chinese detective novel).
And now -- thanks to barmy-kinetic Hong Kong director Tsui Hark -- Di can fly and wields a mean mace.
"Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" imagines Di (Andy Lau) as a Sherlock Holmes-brilliant supercop in a mad exaggeration of the Tang Dynasty -- a world filled with wire-fu, shape-shifting, talking deer, crazy action set pieces and a Buddha statue as tall as a skyscraper. Di finds himself hauled out of prison to figure out why people are spontaneously combusting on the eve of Empress Wu's coronation. There might even be some mild political commentary amid all the scheming and threats of torture.
Fans of Hark's "Once Upon a Time in China" flicks and "Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain" will probably find a lot to like here. Lau plays Di as a cool lone-wolf philosopher who serves justice above any human master. His reluctant Watsons (Li Bingbing, Chao Deng) are vividly sketched. And the Sammo Hung-choreographed wuxia action is gleefully ridiculous -- especially during an extended fight in a watery underground cavern filled with flying timber, flipping boats and a killer marionette.
In their best moments, Hark's action movies have a what-did-I-just-see giddiness, as if their choreography were springing straight from a cartoon id. Though I could have done without much of the film's CGI-heavy fakery, "Detective Dee" finds that giddiness more than a few times.
(122 min., rated PG-13, playing in Portland at Regal Fox Tower) Grade: B
'Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame' (The Oregonian, Friday, Oct. 14, 2011)