Tsui Hark’s fantasy saga loses some of its appeal with each subsequent sequel but the kinetic energy and entertainment are still there.
Tsui Hark returns once again in his fantasy Detective Dee saga with Young Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings. The Four Heavenly Kings marks the third entry and the second prequel to the 2010 Detective Dee and The Phantom Flame that started the franchise off with Andy Lau as the titular Di Ren Jie (Detective Dee). Subsequently replacing Lau is Mark Chao who began in the follow up Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon. Mark Chao returns once again as Di Ren Jie in Young Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings.
Having gained the trust of the emperor Detective Dee (Mark Chao) has been promoted to Imperial advisor as well as being entrusted with the Dragon Taming Mace which grants Dee political standing. Fearing such consequences of such power entitled upon Dee, Empress Wu (Carina Lau) schemes to steal the mace back ordering the commander of the Golden Guards, Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaufeng) and a group of black magic street performers in retrieving said item.
Lurking in the shadows is an ancient Indian tribe called the Wind Warriors which were once loyal to the kingdom but have now been discarded, makes there subsequent move on the now reigning king. The Bureau of Investigations lead by Dee and his friend/physician sidekick, Shantou Zhong (Lin Gengxin) gets embroiled in such matters and it is up to Dee to unravel the true plot.
Hark takes a lot of liberties with the real-life character Di Ren Jie, employing so many mystical and supernatural qualities it feels like a fictional creation. One would be forgiven to not knowing that Dee is based on a real-life character who was China’s equivalent to Sherlock Holmes.
Tsui Hark has now fully embraced CGI and audiences can expect an orgy of visual effects though the quality of the effects have greatly improved after his previous outings; Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon and The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (in which he served as producer). The creature design is imaginative and flows naturally. This time round we have flying dragons, talking fish and a huge albino gorilla, which do not all necessarily make sense but they make for impressive visuals.
It almost feels like Hark has spent a bit too much time with Stephen Chow after their collaboration in Journey to the West: The Demon Strikes Back with many elements within The Four Heavenly Kings feeling like the product of Chow. Back then with Detective Dee and The Phantom Flame Hark struck a fine balance of reality and fantasy but as each subsequent entry he indulges more in his fantastical element, this time around possessing more magical and illusionist antics allowing Hark to go overboard with his visionary creations.
The Four Heavenly Kings introduces a lot of random characters that have little relevance and could have been exorcised all together and would not have affected the overall plot.
Hark approaches the film with a scattered gun approach to storytelling and pacing, mixing so many aspects that can often feel jarring but Hark maintains momentum to retain attention. Hark has also incorporate more comedic beats this time round though it can sometimes feel a bit misplaced among some of the serious moments.
A choice to play his hand pretty early on results in much of the mystery being lost during the later proceedings. One moment, in particular, is shot in a particular way that makes the eventual reveal less worthwhile. There is also some questionable exposition that does not feel like a natural part of the proceedings but a device used to explain to the audiences the motives and back-story.
Being a product of Hark the production design is impressive with lavish sets and a vivid color palette. Weapons are creative and it is clear that Hark has a love of the contraptions and the utility of these weapons, the designs make for some inventive fight scenes.
While the first film in the Detective Dee trilogy handsome fantastic action choreography courtesy of Sammo Hung the following prequel Rise of the Sea Dragon saw the action handed to Yuen Bun, which had some creative wirework and hints of great choreography that sadly relied a bit too much on CGI on.
The Four Heavenly Kings sees action being handled by Lin Feng that sadly moves even further in the realms of CGI with fights often a case of life action evasive maneuvers mixed with CGI combat. Though it is not bad choreography it’s disappointing to see real threat removed by digital fakery.
There is enough action to satiate CGI action junkies but a lot of fight encounters are brief and just as it gets going it ends. Being a norm now as part of Hark’s visual technique is having things fly towards the screen to cater to the 3D technology. The finale is a disappointing display of visual effect creatures opposed to martial artistry.
Lin Gengxin as Shantou has a surprising amount of screen time and thankfully he delivers a likable mild-mannered performance. Lin also gets the love interest plotline, which is rather undercooked and feels too coincidental. Playing love interest is Ma Sichun as Water Moon an assassin that serves little purpose to the overall plot.
As Empress Wu, Carina Wu continues to show more complexity in her role, demonstrating ease in moments of poise, rage, and lunacy. Feng Shaufeng returns once again after his turn in Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon and commands a great presence though he does not feel at ease with the more comedic beats.
Mark Chao plays Dee a second time and is still unconvincing as the super-intelligent detective and comes across bland. This time around Dee is the most boring of all the characters having very little progression.
Not a major departure from the previous installment, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings works perfectly fine as pure entertainment. There is enough of Hark’s visual flair and kinetic energy with a mildly engaging story to carry audiences through to the end.