Limited UK Release From 27th July 2018
If you like a mixture of Sherlock style detective work and effects fuelled wuxia action, then this is probably the series for you. Despite the ‘Young’ part of the title being dropped this is actually a second prequel to the original Detective Dee adventure which means Mark Chao is back in place of the original version of the character portrayed by Andy Lau. But the title isn’t the strongest lead into this tale of magical assassins, a mystical weapons and mind control. The ‘Four Kings’ aren’t really part of the story at all, and feature as a backdrop during one brief action sequence. It should really be called Detective Dee and the Wind Warriors… but there’s a lot going on here and any element would have been fine as a poster hook. Let’s take a look at all this fantasy nonsense at see how much of it works this time around.
There’s a lot to take in here as the Empress Wu (Carina Lau) schemes to take back a magical weapon, the Dragon Taming Mace, from Di Renjie AKA Detective Dee. He was awarded this by the Emperor after his involvement in the events of the previous film, so underhanded tactics are required. Magic using assassins are to be gathered and Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) head of the royal guard is pressured into assisting them. Meanwhile there are nefarious plans being put into action by Indian mystics leading a group who were betrayed by earlier rulers of the Tang dynasty. Why does the Empress want to go behind her husband’s back this way, and how are the illusionists linked to the Wind Warrior army waiting to make their move?
It’s less a detective mystery than it is a story about fantasy magic and underhanded political machinations. These disparate plot threads to eventually fall into place as it becomes a simple story of revenge and toppling a ruler – but getting to this conclusion is often a long winded process. There are many side characters and many detours along the way, with Di himself being left off screen for a lot of the running time. There’s a lot of philosophical debate, a lot of CGI, and a few scenes of herbal medicine and acupuncture. It does try and create some suspense with several flashbacks adding to the intrigue as characters mull over cryptic clues, and it does have a villain bait and switch moment about half way through which isn’t entirely predictable.
However the best mixture of detective work and action comes in the first act as an artist’s store is ransacked to lure Di and friends into a trap and get them away from the magical mace. This is the best example of what the film has to offer as modern Sherlock style investigation (including plenty of effects shots and dramatic edits to show his mind at work) collides with classic Eastern wire work action. There are a lot of gadgets and throwing weapons used, and it’s a very imaginative set piece overall as the thieves and the investigators uncover traps set on either end. However the film in between this kind of fantastical crime drama is often rather languorous despite all the different schemes in play at any given time. It’s always visually impressive but it could do with being more concise.
The production values including the sets and costumes are often lavish as the story visits royal palaces, puppet master lairs and Taoist shrines. A lot of this is unfortunately made with 3D in mind which means one too many flying objects from magic weapons to monster body parts, but it’s all pretty interesting to look at anyway. The visual effects themselves are pretty varied in terms of both creature creations and quality. You might not expect it from the premise, but this is an adventure that manages to cram in both transforming ninjas, mystic visions of talking animals, and even a monster battle that clearly parallels King Kong. Much of this is meant to be an illusion of some kind created by the villain (begging the question how some of the physical interactions work) but ultimately it’s not an entirely serious story.
As a character piece things are less effective, with Di himself being out of the picture and getting little development beyond a few physical illness moments that are often forgotten which it’s convenient. A lot of time is given to the conflict of his friend Yuchi but again it’s cut short when they need to team up. Elsewhere his colleague Shatuo (Kenny Lin) falls for assassin Moon (Ma Sichun) but there’s just never any convincing chemistry, and it all stems from yet another gag involving communal showers. In 2018 this is still a thing in Chinese action movies, I guess it’s just seen as classic comedy. At least the Empress Wu is suitably maniacal when required even though her just desserts feel sadly missing in the tepid post action conclusion. Mid credits scenes feel old hat by Hollywood standards, it’s really not necessary for anyone else to adopt them.
The big action finish is at least pretty engaging as monster effects and flying warriors are brought to the doorstep of Di’s Investigation Bureau. The blend of swordplay and Sanskrit chants used to combat the illusions of the Wind Warrior clan is an interesting choice, and it’s always fun to see a story in which Buddha seems to be a source of both magic power and of real life lessons. It’s big and brash, and while it’s often meandering and unpolished there’s still a lot of interesting moments and visual splendour. I personally prefer the old style monsters from A Chinese Ghost Story, but times have changed. I also like those kung-fu endings where it just says ‘The End’ immediately after the final blow which might have worked better here. Tsui Hark often favours epic fantasy set pieces and melodrama over real story structure, and this is no exception. It’s by no means one of his best efforts but it has a lot of good moments despite it being pretty uneven overall.