The intrepid court investigator had legitimate mysteries to contend with in Tsui Hark’s two previous Detective Dee films, but this time out, you could say he is working on a loss-prevention case. Di Renjie has been tasked with safeguarding the Dragon Taming Mace, a fabled weapon with Excalibur-like powers and vital symbolic importance for the Tang Dynasty. That does not sit well with the Empress Consort Wu Zetian, who covets power (and the mace that represents it) for herself. However, the chancellor-sleuth will have bigger, more spectacular foes to battle in Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Di knows the mace will be trouble, but fortunately he is not about to hide it under his bed or stash it in a closet (but maybe he would, because you would never expect that from someone so clever). That is why the distraction designed to lure him from the Department of Investigations only yields an unlucky murder victim. Wu’s Taoist agents will have to be more direct the next time, but that does not sit well with their ostensive commander, Yuchi Zhenjin, a captain of the Imperial guard, who has sworn his loyalty to Wu and his brotherhood to Di. He had misgivings, even before Wu’s magician-mercenaries start piling up bodies.
Things get rather awkward for all concerned when a shadowy third-party upstages Wu’s assassins with more powerful black magic of their own. Although Di largely stayed a step ahead of Wu’s conspirtors, he is still only a man. To combat the perfect storm of bad mojo approaching, he will need help from a monk who was once the apprentice of Di’s former ally and is now poised on the brink of enlightenment.
Like most of Tsui’s films, Heavenly Kings has some big-time spectacle, including dragons and albino King Kongs. Yet, unlike in Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back, none of the huge set pieces veer into kitsch or shtick, nor do they overwhelm the characters.
This time around, Mark Chao is more settled in and comfortable as the iconic investigator. He is at his best playing off William Feng Shaofeng as the conflicted Yuchi. Their strained but genuine friendship is one the most rewarding aspects of Heavenly Kings. On the other hand, a little of Kenny Lin Gengxin as Shatuo Zhong, Di’s bumbling sidekick, goes a long way. At least he does not step on Sandra Ma Sichun, who shines in their scenes together, as a homesick Taoist assassin, who develops a conscience and an unlikely attraction to Shatuo. Nevertheless, the real star is Carina Lau, in all her regal, scheming glory, as the grand Empress Wu.
There are some highly cinematic fight scenes in Heavenly Kings, but perhaps more importantly, it boasts some of the craziest, Earth-shaking Buddhist imagery since Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West, which is saying something. If that kind of thing appeals to you as much as it does to us, then you have to see Heavenly Kings (a subtitle that is somewhat misleading out of context, but so be it). Audiences should also note there are several pseudo-stingers sprinkled throughout the closing credits, including one that effectively ties the two Chao prequels to the original Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Recommended for fans of Tsui’s style of action conducted on a grand scale, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings opens this Friday (7/27) in New York, at the AMC Empire.