Believe it or not, it has been five years since Tsui Hark last directed a Detective Dee movie. That movie in question was Young Detective Dee: Rise Of The Sea Dragon <狄仁杰之神都龙王>, the prequel that reintroduced the title character by replacing Andy Lau from the first movie with Taiwanese-Canadian actor Mark Chao.
Picking up where the prequel left off, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings <狄仁杰之四大天王> finds the emperor (Sheng Chien) bestows the Dragon-Taming Mace to Di Renjie (Mark Chao), a precious gift that doesn’t particularly pleased the power-hungry Empress Wu (Carina Lau).
In order to steal the mace, she puts Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) in charge of the mission with the help of jianghu sorcerers including Ma Sichun’s Water Moon known as the Mystic Clan.
Elsewhere, Di Renjie along his loyal doctor-sidekick Shatuo Zhong (Lin Gengxin) investigates a mysterious cult, whose primary goal is to bring down the Tang Dynasty at all cost.
This time, Di Renjie’s deduction skills are mostly reduced to verbal expositions. In fact, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings <狄仁杰之四大天王> is less of a Sherlock Holmes-like murder mystery that most of us have grown accustomed to this franchise seen in the last two movies.
Instead, co-writer and director Tsui Hark is more interested to explore the same old themes of power play and political intrigue while cramming as many subplots as he can over the course of 132-minute running time. This is not the first time Tsui has ever done so, given his penchant for weaving a convoluted storyline ever since his Once Upon A Time In China <黃飛鴻> heydays.
It does work, particularly during the intriguing first half of the movie such as the fancy introduction of the Mystic Clan, showy magic tricks and illusions as well as some of Lin Feng’s top-notch action choreography.
But Tsui and Chang Chia-Lu’s busy plot can only sustain up to a certain point. By the time the second half kicks in, the movie starts to wobble with one exposition-heavy scenario after another and even concludes with anything-goes, CGI-heavy finale that includes a King Kong-like white ape and red-tentacled monster straight out from a Japanese manga. It’s definitely over-the-top to the point that Tsui Hark gets too carried away with all those colourful CGI bags of tricks.
As for the cast, Mark Chao’s otherwise leading role as Di Renjie is surprisingly reduced with a lesser screen time, even though he’s given a few moments to remind us that we are still watching a Detective Dee movie.
Feng Shaofeng displays his usual charisma as Yuchi Zhenjin but tends to overact in some scenes. Lin Gengxin’s Shatuo Zhong fares better this time around as the movie’s comic relief and even shares a wonderful love-hate chemistry with the feisty Ma Sichun as Water Moon, easily the best supporting character among all franchise newcomers in this movie. Carina Lau continues to display the same old diabolical role as the scheming Empress Wu. Frankly, I’ve seen her better in the last two movies.
Apart from the aforementioned Lin Feng’s action choreography, Kenji Kawai’s soaring score alongside Yoshihito Akatsuka’s lavish production design as well as Lee Pik-Kwan and Bruce Yu’s sumptuous costumes design are worthy of praises.
Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings <狄仁杰之四大天王> may have been spotty in places but this second prequel remains a reasonably entertaining piece of work, proving that the franchise still has what it takes to carry on for more instalments in the future.