Waaaaay back when, when I was in college, I took an elective course entitled "East Asian History," which focused on early China, Japan, and Korea. In order to teach us the laws and rules of the Chinese people at the time of the Tang Dynasty, we had to read a book called Judge Dee and the Chinese Nail Murders. It was a fascinating story all about the gruff (and the actually quite historically real) Judge Dee, who was the empire's sharpest, most just, and most loyal magistrate on the government payroll. And the guy was sporting something like 4 hot wives at the time. I liked the man from the outset.
Judge Dee had a court of like a half dozen loyal as all fuck investigators/footmen/minions working under him (the job of the judge at the time was to find the truth behind illegal activities himself, with whatever means were deemed necessary, including torture if need be). Dee's motley retinue learned quickly to never question his methods, and to follow through with any line of questioning or examination that the big bearded one tells them to do. In the end of all the Judge Dee novels (and I read them all), truth and justice prevails, Dee ends up triumphant after using his enormous brain to
out clever the foxy bad guys out fox the clever bad guys, and there's a big American dance party. The end.
The movie Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame has absolutely NOTHING to do with this Judge Dee, or the real Judge Dee for that matter.
Oh, it's supposed to be the same guy, only when he's younger, a martial arts master, and a dissident to the Regent who's about to make herself China's first official Empress (to whom he served as chancellor in real life); but that's like making a movie about Abraham Lincoln, but basing it not around his brilliant real-life political career and his drive to abolish slavery, but instead to turn him into a super strengthened, vampire-killing bad ass who ended the Civil War single-handedly by making sure that the Northern armies got a huge supply of silver bullets needed to stop the undead rebels at the Battle of Gettysburg... Schlock.
No, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is not a bad movie — not in the least. It's fun, it's got some pretty rugged fight choreography (thanks mostly to the always cool Sammo Hung), and the center mystery is actually pretty intriguing. I was sucked into it from the very beginning thanks mostly to the characters though: there's Detective Dee of course (who's a likeable Jet Li/Sherlock Holmes hybrid here), Jing'er (the right hand woman of the future Empress of China), and Pei Donglai (an investigator with a keen eye, and some albinoism issues) who fill out the main cast, and who make very good heroes to cheer for, even if they don't like each other in the least.
The whole of the story is about the woman Regent about to be crowned Empress of all China, and the mysterious deaths of several of her retinue (a construction manager overseeing the construction of the monstrous statue of the Buddha overlooking the royal palace [to be finished in time for Her Majesty's coronation], and the official sent to investigate this possible murder). See, these two men were set on fire and turned to ash from the inside out, in front of hundreds of then grossed out onlookers. Not your typical "oops, I slipped, fell, and snapped my neck" accidents.
Thinking that something may be up (this may be ancient China, where hoards of masked, black-wrapped assassins can [and usually do] pop up out of the shadows by the dozen every ten seconds to murder someone in a most foul way... but they don't tend to internally combust in a pretty disturbing manner, ending in a charred skeleton in less than 30 seconds flat), Wu Zetian, the Regent and soon to be Empress, orders the charismatic and brilliant Detective Dee to be released from prison (for unsuccessfully attempting to keep Her Highness from the throne 8 years earlier), and decrees that he solve the flaming crimes before her coronation. Dee hesitantly agrees.
What follows is a butt-ton of political intrigue, oodles of super-human martial arts action, and some shittily-rendered "magical" deer that would look at home in a Sy-Fy Channel movie of the week. The Chinese may have the idea of the "period piece" down to a science, but their CGI still seems to be generated on a 1980s Amiga. Well, to be fair, all the inanimate objects created on a computer looked passable: the capital city in all its old school design glory, the thousand-foot tall Buddha statue, and the Phantom Bazaar all look pretty impressive on screen, but the few creatures created with CGI look and move so incredibly fake to the point where it not only takes you out of the story, but makes you laugh out loud so hard that unchewed Froot Loops come out your nose.... It's painful and embarrassing.
As far as kicks and punches go, this movie's got it goin' on, like a super fly Jet Li in the middle of a typhoon, kickin' and choppin' giant waves like a mo' fo' Tyrannosaurus chompin' up Jeff Goldblum! And when it comes to detectin' and mysteries that needs to be solvin', well, it does so better than a group of 70s teenagers checkin' out a haunted abandoned amusement park with a giant talking dog!
My only prob with this whole she-bob is that the Empress of China is like some wrinkley old woman! Seriously, China, you have like a billion fuckin' peeps, yo! You can't find one hot, young chick to play the sexy Empress? That retainer chick was all making me feel warm and fuzzy, but what? There was only one hot to trot lady to go for this movie?! If this was a Jackie Chan movie you know that horny bastard would have had at least 5 nice-to-look-at chicks walking around, shakin' they's money-makers! Bah!
Literature is dead, my brothas. The eloquent and impressive Judge Dee books written by Robert Van Gulik — wherein the titular magistrate solves all kinds of impressive murders and shit while saving the Chinese Empire from corrosion from within — have led to a movie about the historical figure's impeccable ability to kick evil doers in the face and kung-fu punch a mountain to dust. All in all this could have been quite entertaining had they only changed the name of the fuckin' protagonist to anything but mothafuckin' "Dee!" You just name him Li, or Hwong, or Wang and there go all my fuckin' problems with this production. Leave the legendary man alone, and if you must make an action movie with giant statues 40-stories tall, with leaping ninjas everywhere, well, don't put my main man Dee in it!