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Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon
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by Jay Seaver

"More, crazier Detective Dee? Sign me up."
4 stars

I've got to confess: When I hoped for more Detective Dee movies after seeing "Mystery of the Phantom Flame" a couple years ago, I didn't really think I'd get them. Happily, it seemed the people of China also wanted more, and director Tsui Hark also seemed to have a soft spot for the character that revitalized his career. Apparently star Andy Lau wasn't quite so enthusiastic, so Hark went and made this one a prequel. But don't worry about that making it predictable; despite knowing Dee will still be around at the end, this bit of martial-arts-mystery-fantasy-adventure is even more crazy - and just as much fun - as its predecessor.

Things kick off in 665 AD, with Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) effectively in control of a Middle Kingdom at war with its neighbor Yuya. When a fleet sent north to confront them is eradicated and the survivors make noises about a sea dragon, she orders Da Lisi chief Yuchi Zhenjin ("William" Feng Shaofeng) to investigate while the commoners make plans to appease the gods with a ceremonial fasting by courtesan Yin Ruiji (Angelababy). A new arrival in the capital city of Luoyang, Dee Renjie ("Mark" Chao You-ting) gets wind of a plot to kidnap Ruiji even before reporting to Da Lisi headquarters to begin as a detective, and gets to the temple just in time to break it up - although he does not have an immediate explanation for the lizard-man who shows up midway through.

Yes, a lizard-man. Those who had issues with the more fantastical elements of Phantom Flame may as well just accept that things are going to get weird here as Dee and company find themselves faced with creatures of all shapes and sizes. Hark happily takes detours into horror territory here, but in some ways, that just adds to the "Chinese Sherlock Holmes" vibe of the character, as Holmes debunked his share of monsters and didn't always play fair with the reader in his adventures. While Hark and co-writer Chang Chia-lu put a fair amount of not-always-sophisticated humor into the flick, the Sherlockian aspect of the story certainly comes through as he tries to find a logical explanation for the monsters plaguing the city with his close observation of the evidence, broad knowledge of many subjects, and physician sidekick Shatuo Zhong (Lin Geng-xin).

Admittedly, Mark Chao doesn't bring quite the same sort of strong, cocky personality that Andy Lau did to Dee, but that's okay; this is a Dee who has just arrived at Luoyang from the provinces, and while he's still clearly quick-witted and confident of his conclusions, he's a little overwhelmed at times but gains the swagger that goes with his rebellious actions as the movie goes on. He plays well off Feng Shaofeng and Lin Geng-xin, making for an effective team. Angelababy is a likable damsel in distress, while Carina Lau (the only one returning from the previous movie) reinforces what a ruthless personality the Empress is.

The guys all look pretty capable where the martial arts are concerned, which is good, because Tsui, action director Yuen bun, and choreographer Lam Fung have plenty of action to throw at them. There's a fair amount of wire work that doesn't always look completely solid, but there's also a lot of mixing it up with large groups, and the fact that some of the participants are wearing rubber monster suits or the masks of the film's "Dondo Island" villains just gives the action a fun, unrepentantly pulpy atmosphere. And while the big fight with the human villain has a fair amount of CGI augmentation, it's creatively staged and plenty unique for making a vertical set-up work very well.

Hark likes his special effects, and uses a bunch of them here, whether to build a Tang-dynasty city and other environs he can race the camera around or a sea monster attacking a fleet of ships. They're not quite up to the standard of an American blockbuster, but that's okay, because Tsui is using them to show crazy stuff, from a guy swinging his sword at bees to an underwater chase involving a horse to plenty of other things that are just as bonkers (and if you stick around through the end credits, it looks like there were a bunch of other concepts that didn't make it into this movie). It's kind of a shame that the movie isn't playing in 3D in Boston as it is in China (I don't know about the rest of its American bookings), as Tsui loves throwing things at the audience, and even in 2D, the composition often has the "layered" look of movies built for the third dimension.

Even more so than its parent film, "Young Detective Dee" ends with the potential for more, and once again I hope Tsui and company go back to this well. "Rise of the Sea Dragon" is plenty silly at times, but that's an indication of just how much Tsui Hark wants to entertain the audience during every one of its 130-odd minutes. He manages that much more often than not, making for a fun night at the movies.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25737&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/28/13 22:30:40
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USA
  27-Sep-2013
  DVD: 11-Feb-2014

UK
  N/A

Australia
  27-Sep-2013


Directed by
  Hark Tsui

Written by
  Chia-lu Chang
  Hark Tsui

Cast
  Mark Chao
  Angelababy
  William Feng
  Geng-Xin Lin
  Carina Lau
  Beom Kim



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