Way back in China’s history judges were the investigators of the day and during the Tang Dynasty there lived a noteworthy magistrate by the name of Di Renji. In the 1940’s an international author wrote a series of mystery novels loosely based on the judge now re-christened Judge Dee.
Today we have a new film based on that re-imagining entitled Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. The movie takes place during the coronation of China’s only woman to be named Emperor and, as one might expect, that doesn’t exactly sit well with everyone around the empire. The Empress has to confront a dangerous mystery that has caused several of her senior aids to literally burst into flames. She turns to the one man that she believes can solve the mystery—Detective Dee.
The film is part Sherlock Holmes and part martial arts action. Many references have been made to the wonderful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film of several years ago. There are many very cinematic visuals, impressive special effects and elements that initially seem entirely fantastical—which seems a bit out of place in this otherwise down-to-earth film. The best part about these bits is that, ultimately, all of them are re-grounded in reality by the title character.
The film was very much a mixed bag for me. There are parts I enjoyed thoroughly and it’s an intriguing story from start to finish. However, there are also several other instances where the story is nearly incomprehensible. Adding to this problem are many action sequences where you have no idea who is fighting who or why they’re even fighting. When the movie’s good it’s exceptional. When it’s bad it felt like one of those horrible martial arts B-movies I used to see on TV on Saturday afternoon’s when I was a kid (and that’s far from a compliment).
The best thing I can say about a movie is that it stays with you and here I just can’t do that. Almost immediately after seeing it I’d forgotten most of it. I don’t regret seeing it but it’s likely to just be an also-ran in my memory for the year-end movie roundup.