As the modern Hollywood action blockbuster appears comfortably entrenched in incoherent spectacle, it would behoove filmmakers to take a couple tips from Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee. This pricey, Tang Dynasty-set spectacle isn’t any less inane than the cinema of Michael Bay and ilk; it makes only slightly more sense than Transformers 2, though is still harder to parse than Transformers 3. Yet it has the random nuttiness our country’s monster hits uniformly lack. Much was made about Transformers 2 featuring a space robot that for no apparent reason sported a pair of massive testicles. Whatever—Detective Dee boasts multiple people bursting into flame, a talking stag that also fights, an actual underworld complete with a Charon-like ferryman, people changing their faces via acupuncture, a fight with what looks like a puppet and a shady herbalist named “Dr. Donkey Wang.”
That’s to say nothing of its titular crime solver, who can effortlessly segue from Sherlock Holmes-worthy logic magic right into beautiful asskickery. Played by a shockingly thin Andy Lau, Dee is released from an eight year prison stint by the Empress Wu (Carina Lau), who put him in there in the first place. Seems that her inauguration, which is to be celebrated with the completion of a 200 foot colossus bearing her visage, is being threatened by a rash of officials killed via spontaneous combustion. Dee teams up with Wu’s stern female bodyguard and an albino investigator to find the culprit, a pursuit that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but does offer a steady dose of magic amulets, fire beetles, sorcery and plenty of Sammo Hung-choreographed mayhem.
Detective Dee is being heralded as a comeback for Hark, whose films have barely made it stateside since his panned but genuinely bizarre stint helming Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles. (The climax of Double Team memorably featured JCVD and Dennis Rodman battling a shirtless Mickey Rourke in a colosseum filled with tigers and Coke machines.) His work is fluid and engaging, if undercut by a reliance on shitty CGI backdrops and only slightly more credible effects. Still, better insanity on the (comparative) cheap than witless bullshit that’s been overfunded. American popcorn fare could use more talking stags.