Instead of a direct sequel to 2010’s Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame <狄仁傑之通天帝國>, co-writer and director Tsui Hark dialled back down a notch by going the prequel route. He even recast Andy Lau’s titular role with a younger lead played by Mark Chao, the Taiwanese-Canadian actor best known in Monga <艋舺> and Black & White Episode 1: The Dawn Of Assault <痞子英雄>.
Which is a shame, of course. Besides, Andy Lau was one of the major reasons that contributed to the success of the first Detective Dee movie. It’s like losing Jet Li and got replaced with Vincent Zhao instead in Once Upon A Time In China <黃飛鴻> franchise. This was initially how I felt when I first watched Young Detective Dee: Rise Of The Sea Dragon <狄仁杰之神都龙王> back in 2013.
But surprisingly, Mark Chao proves to be a worthy replacement after all. He brings enough sardonic wit and boyish charisma to his role as the younger version of Detective Dee.
Plot-wise, Tsui Hark and Chang Chia-Lu’s screenplay isn’t as interesting as the first Detective Dee movie. This is particularly true when comes to its mystery angle related to the titular Sea Dragon, even though it does offer plenty of twists and turns.
Not to mention this prequel tends to feel overlong, given its sometimes protracted 133-minute length. Although Chao shines as the young Detective Dee, some of the supporting actors are disappointingly average. This includes Angelababy’s flower-vase role as the kidnapped courtesan, Yin Ruiji while Ian Kim leaves a little impression as the mysterious scholar, Yuan Zhen who turns out to be the Sea Dragon. It doesn’t help either when their Beauty and the Beast-like romance angle fails to generate enough spark to make their characters either heartfelt or sympathetic enough.
Thankfully, other actors like Feng Shaofeng and Lin Gengxin both deliver solid supports respectively as the Justice Department-like head of the Dalisi, Yuchi Zhenjin and Dee’s sidekick/prison doctor Shatuo Zhong.
On the technical front, Young Detective Dee: Rise Of The Sea Dragon <狄仁杰之神都龙王> has all the hallmarks that made the first Detective Dee movie such an entertaining genre movie. Despite the absence of Sammo Hung from the first movie, Yuen Bun and Lam Fung did a great job handling the action choreography. Even the gravity-defying fight sequences remind me of Tsui’s earlier wuxia movies, albeit the fact the old-school wire work is now enhanced with CGI.
Although Young Detective Dee: Rise Of The Sea Dragon <狄仁杰之神都龙王> does feel like a step-down effort if compared to the more superior original, this prequel remains adequate enough on its own.