It’s Mad Detective <神探> revisited but other than sharing the same main character traits and thematic similarities involving personality disorder, Detective vs. Sleuths <神探大戰> bears no direct connection with the aforementioned 2007 movie.
And despite reuniting Lau Ching-Wan and director Wai Ka-Fai, Detective vs. Sleuths <神探大戰> is an entirely standalone and different movie altogether. Here, Lau Ching-Wan plays Jun Lee, a once-decorated cop who suffered from paranoid delusion and multiple personality disorder. After being ousted from the Hong Kong police force decades ago, he has since lived on the streets but is still active in conducting his own way of investigating cold cases. Among them includes the elusive “Butcher” and “Devil Cop” cases, which remain unsolved.
Then comes a mysterious group of hooded vigilantes nicknamed “The Chosen Sleuths” executing responsible individuals. Each of their violent killings would see them spray-painting specific case numbers for the cops to discover later on. Fong (Raymond Lam Fung) and his pregnant wife, Yee (Charlene Choi), both in charge of the case have tried to hunt down the Chosen Sleuths but they are always one step ahead. Complicating matters is Jun, who may or may not be directly linked to the Chosen Sleuths.
Previously known as Cold Detective during its initial production back in 2018, I have been anticipating the release of this movie ever since, especially given the long-awaited reunion of Lau Ching-Wan and Wai Ka-Fai. They last worked together in 2009’s Written By <再生號> and before that, they made a fruitful collaboration in TVB’s The Greed of Man <大時代> (1992) and notable feature-film efforts like Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 <一個字頭的誕生> (1997) and of course, Mad Detective <神探>.
When Mad Detective <神探> was first released in 2007, not only it was among the best co-directing efforts from Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai but also featured one of Lau Ching-Wan’s best performances ever seen — a result that landed him a much-deserved Best Actor nomination in the 27th Hong Kong Film Awards, even though he lost to Jet Li for The Warlords <投名狀>. And it was no doubt one of the best Hong Kong movies ever made that year and even in the decade during the 2000s era.
Personally, I was expecting Wai Ka-Fai would repeat the same filmmaking brilliance that he successfully displayed in Mad Detective <神探>. But the absence of Johnnie To as the co-director is sorely felt in Detective vs. Sleuths <神探大戰>, despite the fact this new movie is not under the Milkyway production banner. It may have been an Emperor Motion Pictures film but the Milkyway-style of filmmaking remains present in this movie, complete with the signature stylised gun violence as well as its quirky and gritty crime-thriller undertones.
And yet, even Wai Ka-Fai served as a co-writer alongside Ryker Chan and Mak Tin-Shu, both of which respectively wrote for Milkyway-produced Drug War <毒戰> (2013) and Trivisa <樹大招風> (2016), Detective vs. Sleuths <神探大戰> pales in comparison with the much-superior Mad Detective <神探>. Perhaps it has to do with appeasing the China censors, coupled with the fact that Detective vs. Sleuths <神探大戰> looks like it was edited by film committees potentially diluting whatever Wai Ka-Fai and his screenwriting team trying to bring a twisted study about psychology and murder.
I mean, how else can you explain the movie seems rushed from the get-go, where everything is paced like an action movie rather than a deliberate crime thriller. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with combining the conventional action-movie formula with a gritty crime thriller. But having the former overshadows more than bringing the right balance between the two genres together somehow distracts Wai Ka-Fai’s intricate ways of storytelling. The movie has more than often succumbed to narrative shortcuts that instead of an effective “show, don’t tell” approach, relies heavily on expositions. It could have delved deeper into the character arcs including both protagonist and antagonist(s)’ point-of-views rather than relegating them to surface-level perspectives (again, I suspected there are potentially many scenes left on the cutting-room floor).
For instance, the introduction of the vigilante-style group The Chosen Sleuths is actually an interesting one but the movie spends little time exploring their actions and above all, their motivations. Sure, we do learn that this group wants revenge and seeks its own brand of justice but it’s all hastily told in a superficial manner. The same also goes with Lau Ching-Wan’s role as a mentally-troubled ex-cop, Jun Lee. As much as I enjoyed his unhinged and showy performance, he clearly deserves better in this movie. His co-stars, Raymond Lam Fung and Charlene Choi both deliver decent supporting turns while it’s nice to see Carman Lee again on the big screen playing the role of a police commissioner.
Given the strict China censors these days, I’m glad such a genre effort like Detective vs. Sleuths <神探大戰> still has its place in today’s Hong Kong cinema. Beyond its shortcoming on the exposition-heavy narrative side, I do love the psychological aspect of the movie. The inclusion of action-heavy moments may have been distracting at times but it’s hard to deny (Jack) Wong Wai-Leung’s overall impressive action direction. This is particularly evident during a shootout scene in a cramped building, followed by a chase through the Temple Street Night Market (at one point, we see Lau Ching-Wan’s Jun Lee clinging to the roof of a speeding car).
Despite the movie seemingly being promoted like a mainstream blockbuster, Wai Ka-Fai doesn’t shy away from the kind of gun violence synonymous with Hong Kong cinema (the back-alley killing involved in the “Devil Cop” case comes to mind). Detective vs. Sleuths <神探大戰> may have been far from the great effort that I hoped for, but this Milkyway-style production remains a reasonably tense and entertaining crime thriller worth checking out.