First of all, who is Detective Dee? For those who don’t know him already, Dee Renjie was a magistrate in the Tang dynasty, a guarantor of the Tang Code, highly revered by Empress Wu Zetian for his logical nature and honesty. Later in history, his life inspired the fictional character of a crime-solving magistrate called Judge Dee in some historical “whodunit” novels, virtually unknown to the West if it wasn’t for Dutch diplomat and writer Robert van Gulik who – at the beginning of 1900 – picked up an old copy of the novels in a second hand shop and decided to rewrite his own version of the Chinese Detective. And here we are, the modern version of the popular Detective Dee is a true product of Orientalism and yet very appealing and intriguing.
Director Tsui Hark has picked him up from the Sherlock-Holmes-Clone-Box, expanded him and made him a vehicle for action, craziness, and Wuxia-flavored popcorn. Third installment of the successful franchising about Dee Renjie and second prequel to the original 2010 Andy Lau’s interpretation “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”, “The Four Heavenly Kings” doesn’t waste any time introducing the characters or the story and carries on straight from where “Young Detective Dee: Rise of The Sea Dragon” had finished in 2013. After his victory against the Sea Dragon, Dee (Mark Chao) is awarded a prestigious “Dragon Taming Mace” by Emperor Gaozong, a Mace made of stardust steel, an invincible weapon and the powerful emblem of the trust the emperor places in him. However, things start to go wrong in milliseconds; Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) immediately sees her power under threat as a result of the precious Mace in Dee’s hands and she prompts Yuchi Zhenjin (William Feng) of the Justice Department to co-operate with some suspicious-looking sorcerers to steal back the Mace.
Yuchi is now in a pickle; he is Dee’s sworn brother and doesn’t want to betray him but he is also under the Empress’s command and must obey. Of course Dee is too clever to keep the Mace in any obvious place and to hold a grudge against Yuchi for his acts, and when the furious and frustrated Empress tries to frame Dee for attempted murder, even Shatuo (Kenny Lin) joins the friends and the trio will mastermind a plan of action to unveil the puppet master behind the Empress’ strange behavior, a series of mysterious crimes and a stone dragon coming alive.
This time the plot is less focused on a proper mystery to solve (and I missed that a bit) and instead it deals with a series of semi-mysterious events, generated by political rapacity and the dark side of human heart; greed, revenge and a devastating grudge.
The trio of “amigos”, Dee, Yuchi and Shatuo comes out well established and strong, although strangely, they spend little time all together in the same place and the movie seems to deal with them separately (a contract deal?), with Dee having maybe the smallest slot of all three. It still works and holds together but I was left with the strange feeling that just as I’ve recovered from Andy Lau’s disappearance, I already wish there was more of the young Dee! Mark Chao is now a confident Dee and there is a good general chemistry with the rest of the friends, William Feng/Yuchi and Kenny Lin/Shatuo, while Carina Lau – as bluntly dictated by the story-line – is on a single, same mood for the whole movie, making her performance look and feel rather flat. A pleasant addition is Ma Sichun as the hysterical tomboy-ish assassin, involved in a buddy-or-love story with Shatuo; there is even a hint that she could join the gang in the next movie, and I truly hope so.
Visually, “The Four Heavenly Kings” is an eye candy, both costume and set design are sumptuously indulgent and purposely created to be best experienced through the 3D IMAX system at its release. CGI is abundant and a bit inconsistent, some very good some less, but fun all the way, from giant goldfish, scary flying dragons, imaginative weaponry, smart bombs and shuriken and a giant albino chimpanzee! Fights from action director Lin Feng are as good as the average of good fights goes, spectacular and entertaining.
I enjoyed “The Four Heavenly Kings”; I think it’s a good franchise and I am looking forward to the next installment but I do hope the plot will be more intriguing and as the movie format is evolving towards a “musketeers”-style it will need more interaction and exchanges between the young and energetic protagonists.