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Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings
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by Jay Seaver

"Dee-lightful."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Four Heavenly Kings" is Tsui Hark's best Detective Dee movie yet, in large part because he recognizes that trying to play these movies as straight mysteries would be silly at this point and he's got the budget not to bother. He starts with big, colorful fantasy that it seems like he'll have a hard time topping, but in this case it's better than saving this particular good stuff for later. This is the first time Dee feels like he's in the middle of an outrageous world from the start, and the frantic political machinations play off the madness well.

After all, one of the reasons the Emperor (Sheng Chien) entrusts the "Dragon-Taming Mace", said to be forged in iron from stardust, to the Bureau of Investigation's Dee Renjie (Mark Chao You-ting), both for safekeeping and as a check on his own power. This infuriates Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau Ka-ling), who immediately enlists Dee's friend Yuchi Zhenjin (William Feng Shaofeng) of the Golden Guards to steal it back, with a "Mystic Tribe" to aid him. But while Huan Tian, Spectral Blades, Night Ghost, Smoke Volant, and Water Moon are clever, they can't avoid tipping the Tang Dynasty's greatest detective off - and while Huan Tian's ambitions are obvious, White Moon (Ma Sichun) is starting to think that there's even more behind that.

There's not really a mystery here for Dee to solve - sure, a well-known painter is robbed and attacked, but Dee almost immediately recognizes it as misdirection - and while lip service is paid to the Mystic Tribe not really having magical powers, those both serve as a sort of a fig leaf on Hark and co-writer Chang Chia-lu making a great big, kind of ridiculous movie about palace intrigue with secret societies and martial-arts masters who can do impossible things. It's not as focused as a murder mystery, and there are certainly points where the filmmakers are either spinning their wheels or don't have much for the guy whose name is in the film's title to do, and the last act pulls some real A Study in Scarlet stuff in revealing the ultimate villain (and, no, reminding one of the story that introduced Sherlock Holmes is not a good thing - there are good reasons why it is seldom adapted).

It is, nevertheless, a lot of fun - the production values are exquisite, with both "regular" costumes and the flashier outfits worn by the villains good-looking and locations both looking great on screen and feeling practical to move around in. The jumping between characters keeps things from bogging down, and both the core group and the villains are giving memorable performances. Mark Chao makes Dee his own rather than trying to imitate Andy Lau, and there's a fun chemistry between Kenny Lin as Dee's sidekick and Ma Sichun as the conflicted assassin. Carina Lau's Empress is a bit off - she comes across as more of a power-hungry maniac than the shrewd politician of the other entries in the series - but Lau is clearly having a ball with it.

And there's still plenty of action, albeit often focusing more on wire-assisted acrobatics and imaginative weaponry than exchanges of blows. It's great fun to watch, both because the action crew led by Lin Feng and Lin Mingliang are very good at their jobs and because the effects crew has created some impressive "creatures". And it builds - the finale is both a greatest hits reprise of every bit of effects that Hark used in the rest of the movie and some even bigger bits of insanity, with monsters that are in their way a kind of reflection of big action movies as a whole: Even within the movie, we know what we're seeing isn't "real", but an illusion, but at a certain point it doesn't really matter; it's convincing enough to provoke a reaction. It may be the best big effects-driven action scene of the summer, though overshadowed here by being a limited release on the same weekend as Tom Cruise risking life and limb.

(It's a crying shame that the said release appears to be entirely 2D in North America, because the credits indicate Hark shot in stereo and he loves throwing crap at the audience or having things float in mid-air. It must be fun in the Chinese premium theaters.)

The movie finishes promising more, maybe even the time travel story starring both Mark Chao and Andy Lau that has been teased for a while. I hope so, because this is one of the most thoroughly entertaining Chinese blockbusters to hit North America in recent years, a fantastic summer escape.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32313&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/31/18 01:08:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  27-Jul-2018

UK
  27-Jul-2018

Australia
  27-Jul-2018 (MA)


Directed by
  Tsui Hark

Written by
  Chia-lu Chang

Cast
  Mark Chao
  Kenny Lin
  Carina Lau
  William Feng
  Sichan Ma



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