MOVIE REVIEW: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Many people have praised “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” as the long-awaited comeback of legendary director Tsui Hark when in fact it’s just another example of everything that’s wrong with Asian cinema. It’s way too long and feels even longer, the plot is incomprehensible at times, and the tone is all over the place. This is a movie that has its hands in some many different genres (from wu xia, to supernatural thriller, to detective story, and historical epic) that it never really creates its own identity.

Set in the late 7th Century on the eve of the coronation of China’s first female emperor, the film follows renowned detective Dee Renjie (Andy Lau) as he’s called into action to solve a mystery involving the deaths of several of the empress’ most trusted officials. The men have all been killed by spontaneously bursting into flames, and though some believe it’s the work of divine intervention, Detective Dee knows that there’s someone of flesh and blood behind the murders. But in order to crack the case, Dee teams up with the empress’ favorite enforcer (Bingbing Li) and an albino official (Chao Deng) to help with investigation, neither of whom he trusts.

Though he’s been referred to as the Asian equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, Detective Dee’s first cinematic adventure isn’t nearly as entertaining as it should be. The potential was certainly there (especially with a great actor like Andy Lau in the lead role), but the film is sorely lacking the wit and complexity that’s made Holmes such an engaging character for all these years. When Lau gets the chance to inject a little humor into the story, it’s actually quite fun, but Hark abandons that comedic tone early on and the movie never really recovers from it. Add to that some surprisingly dull action sequences and subpar special effects, and “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” fails to be anything more than another great concept thwarted by an industry that favors quantity over quality.

  

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Weekend box office preview: Will “The Roommate” breach “Sanctum”? Does anyone care?

It’s Superbowl weekend and that means partially empty theaters on Sunday as a good chunk of the nation drinks beer, eats various high fat and sodium foods, and obsesses either over the game or the commercials. Between that and possible lingering effects of the big storm being suffered through by my easterly Premium Hollywood/Bullz-Eye colleagues in the Midwest and the East, you’re talking about less than optimum movie-going conditions. And, this week, it’s certainly looks like a battle between two less than optimum movies.

To be specific, we have “The Roommate” from Sony/Screen Gems which features “Gossip Girl” star Leighton Meester and the similar looking Minka Kelly of the acclaimed “Friday Night Lights” in a what sure looks like a retread of one of those “the _______ from hell” movies of the eighties and nineties. I never actually saw it, but the model in this case appears to be 1992’s “Single White Female” but set in a dorm room — scarier because the personal space is even smaller, I suppose.

909285 - The Roommate

It’s also scarier because it’s not being shown to critics and the trailer for this alleged thriller actually gave me a couple of good laughs. Even so, hopes are reasonably high for this very young female skewing PG-13 flick to top this very top-able weekend. The L.A. TimesBen Fritz and THR‘s Pamela McClintock both pass on the general opinion that the take will probably not be much more than $15 million and quite possibly significantly less. On the other hand, “The Roommate” only cost $16 million to make so, it’ll make back its budget and it doesn’t seem to me like the studio is blowing much on marketing this one either. Today was the first I’ve heard of it.

The other major new release, which has been on my radar to some degree, is an underwater Australian thriller shot in 3D that is pushing the name of its producer as hard as it can. I guess James Cameron can afford to sully his brand name with what sure looks like a sub-par effort if he wants to. It’s not nice to judge a movie you haven’t seen but with mostly bad reviews and a trailer showing off some scary moments and some surprisingly poor acting it’s hard to hope it’ll be terribly good.

Pamela McClintock reports that Universal is downplaying expectations with a guess of $6 to 8 million. $10 million is apparently too much to hope for. Considering that men are the primary audience is here, if you want to treat a movie theater like your own inner sanctum, I suggest seeing this around 6:00 on Sunday in a theater in or near Wisconsin or Ohio.

In limited release in some 26 theaters according to Box Office Mojo, we have a film with a title that must be on movie marketers’ minds every Superbowl weekend: “Wo Zhi Nu Run Xin.” That’s, transliterated Mandarin for “What Women Want.” The remake of the rather funny Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt 2000 fantasy rom-com from Nancy Myers is back at us from China with Andy Lau and Gong Li.

  

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The Warlords

You’d think that having three of the most bankable movie stars in Asia (one of which is also a pretty big name in the U.S.) would be enough to get any film imported overseas, but it’s taken nearly three years for Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s “The Warlords” to arrive stateside, and quite frankly, it’s easy to see why. Set towards the end of the Qing Dynasty, the movie stars Jet Li as Pang Qingyu, a military general who barely survives a massacre of his fellow soldiers by playing dead. After he’s nursed back to health by a beautiful villager (Jinglei Xu), Pang convinces a group of bandits led by Er Hu (Andy Lau) and Wu Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to join the royal army and fight against the Taiping Rebellion with the promise of freedom and wealth. But when a web of political deceit threatens to break up the trio’s blood oath, they must decide what’s more important: their loyalty to one another or their lives.

If only the film was a little more engaging. While Ho-Sun Chan’s gritty action sequences are beautifully captured, he has no idea how to handle his characters outside of battle. They’re barely developed over the course of the movie, and though we do get a glimpse of how the emotional exhaustion from fighting for so long begins to affect their relationship, it’s steeped in so much melodrama that it saps the life out of the story. The three leads do a good job with what little they’re given to work with, but they don’t click the way that blood brothers probably should. Then again, you’re never really given a good reason why they’ve taken this oath to begin with, so it’s not too surprising when they fail to protect one another as promised. Heck, they don’t even seem like to like each other, and when that relationship is the heart of your film, it’s pretty much doomed to fail.

Click to buy “The Warlords”

  

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Extremely late Friday night news dump

Hey folks, day time tasks have slowed me down, but who was it who said “the night was made for movie blogging”? Okay, no one said that, but we all know it’s true! Anyhow, here are some items from throughout the week I haven’t had a chance to touch on…

* This interview with director Mary Harron has been linked to by several different bloggers throughout the week. If memory serves, it may not actually be new news that Christian Bale partially based his genius-level breakthrough performance in 2000’s “American Psycho” on Tom Cruise, but it’s perhaps more intriguing now that we think we more about both actors’ quirks.

Christian Bale in "American Psycho"

* It might be inside critic/film blogger baseball to you but it’s big — and somewhat distressing — news to me. The thought provoking and just plain cool Karina Longworth, who has helped me out via the miracle of linking many times at her Spout blog home, will be leaving the site at the end of the month, which will also no longer be providing new content including the work of Christopher Campbell (I frequently link to his “The Day in Film Bloggery” posts.).

Somewhat oddly, her soon to be ex-boss attributed her departure not to fiscal issues but to a difference over “vision” for the blog. So, his “vision” was not to have one at all? Anyhow, the consensus is that the hardworking Longworth will be going places regardless.

* I strongly disliked the pilot for “Fringe” (and said so right here) and, unlike David Medsker, I outright hated “Transformers.” (I didn’t even make it through the whole movie…oh, the pleasures of not reviewing.) Then screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman surprised the heck out of me by crafting a perfectly terrific script for “Star Trek,” marred only a little by director J.J. Abram’s hyperactive visual proclivities. (What’s wrong with using a tripod sometimes? Still, he got terrific performances and told a dandy tale, so I’m not complaining too much.) Anyhow, the  writers’ thoughts on the sequel are worth a look.

* Jackie Chan and Andy Lau are remaking Jet Li‘s 1981 breakthrough film, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never even heard of before (at least not that I can remember), “Shaolin Temple.” I guess I should try to see it. Considering that Li was barely 19 back then and that Chan is now 55 (Lau’s in his forties), I trust he’s not playing the same character…or it’s been seriously rewritten.

* Disney is reportedly working on a “digital cloud,” in which content will be purchased and viewable in multiple formats. I generally get the consumer appeal of this, but I still fail to see why anyone would want to watch a movie on a cell phone. In fact, I think even the larger online version of this is way too small for this kind of beauty. (There’s a very brief Spanish language intro, by far the best version of this Disney classic I found on YouTube — the segment starts at 0:23.)

  

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Protégé

Hong Kong has one of the most prolific movie industries in the world, but while they have no problem cranking out films by the hundreds, a vast majority of them are rarely ever good. Consider “Protégé” an exception to the rule, because even though it’s just another undercover cop thriller, stars Daniel Wu and Andy Lau help elevate the material beyond the typical fare. Wu stars as Nick, a young cop who, after spending seven years undercover as part of a drug ring, is finally seeing results. When his boss (Lau) names him as the next in line to take over the business, however, Nick is forced to choose between bringing down the empire and running it. A subplot involving a drug-addicted neighbor (Jingchu Zhang) and her deadbeat husband (an underused Louis Koo) would usually feel like dead weight in a movie like this, but director Tung-Shing Yee does a great job of making it feel relevant to the bigger picture. And though there’s not as much action as you’d expect (save for a particularly memorable sequence involving a drug bust), “Protégé” is still one of the best titles that Dragon Dynasty has released. Then again, that’s to be expected from any movie featuring a star like Andy Lau. The veteran actor’s award-winning performance is the best part about “Protégé,” and though it doesn’t hold a candle to some of his other films, it’s worth seeing for that alone.

Click to buy “Protégé”

  

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