Detective Chinatown 2Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/06/18 12:25:05
It's been a couple of years since it came out, but I seem to remember the first "Detective Chinatown" just being kind of conventionally wacky, not quite the over-the-top mess that its sequel turns out to be. Sure, part of that is a matter of how the move from Bangkok to New York lets American viewers like me see more clearly when it's doing some really tacky caricature work, but it really seems like there's nothing here that's not dialed up to 11, making a murder mystery play more like a party game, a step down from a slapstick comedy that had respected the genre.This time around, college student and crime-solving wunderkind Chin Fong (Liu Haoran) arrives in New York City under the pretense that cousin Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) is getting married, but he is instead dragged to a meeting hall filled with sleuths from around the world, where dying Chinatown elder "Uncle Seven" Wu (Kenneth Tsang) has tasked them with solving the murder of his nephew Jason, offering a five-million-dollar reward if anyone in the group can solve the crime in seven days. Uncle Seven is respected enough that NYPD detective Laura Chen Ying (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) will serve as a liaison, especially helpful when the group discovers that this may be the work of a serial killer. Evidence soon points to illegal alien Song Yi (Xiao Yang), with potentially-disinherited godson Lu Guofu (Wang Xun) enlisting American tough-guy detective Wild Bull Billy (Brett Azar) to bring him in, but Chin soon finds reason to believe Song Yi is innocent, leading to them on the run with occasional help from Hong Kong hacker Kiko (Shang Yuxian), though they'll have to break into the office of coroner James Springfield (Michael Pitt) to get some evidence.
The first Detective Chinatown was better than expected, getting Chin and Tang into both a locked-room mystery and simply embarrassing situations with equal ease, making it feel natural even if it's also heightened and kind of nuts. There's not much about the situation they find themselves in this time that particularly rings true; everything about the setup with the detective-ranking app, the lobby full of weird rivals, and the competition makes it feel more like a game than an actual mystery. Returning writer/director Chen Sicheng doesn't craft that part nearly as well this time around. It's still got plenty of funny bits, though, especially when the slapstick gets really crazy, and when the audience has kind of settled into the new mood, from goofy car chases to a spectacularly implausible setting at the end. The jokes on how China sees America and New York are a bit of a mixed bag; it's easy to laugh at the "everyone has a gun" bits even while realizing that the next few years of world cinema dunking on America for electing Donald Trump will lead to as many bad jokes as well-delivered ones. Similarly, the crossdressing gags work better than the leather/biker-bar ones, although both come off as a bit tone-deaf.
Most importantly, the returning cast still has a fun odd-couple appeal. Wang Baoqing's half of the team really only proves useful in one scene, at least in terms of solving the mystery, but Wang is still a mugging ball of energy, game for just about anything Chen comes up with, and the pair are very well aware of the line where Tan Ren would stop being funny and overeager, always staying on the right side of it. He plays well off Liu Haoran, who plays Chin with a little more confidence this time around, both a good straight man who can roll his eyes at Tan gwithout seeming snotty or mean, and able to dive into the physical comedy with plenty of enthusiasm. It's a good pairing that mostly accommodates other characters well, although not a whole lot comes of adding Xiao Yang to the mix as Song Yi for an extended period. Wang Xun does well enough as the sniveling obvious suspect, and Shang Yuxian's Kiko sparks nicely with Liu Haoran, though she's held back a bit by having half of her lines be in English.
She's often the one who most obviously must deal with the pitfalls of multi-lingual movies, switching between Mandarin and English exposition and thus having the lines spoken in English land with a thud worldwide. Natasha Liu Bordizzo is the most comfortably bilingual member of the cast, although she often gets stuck with a character that's never given quite enough to do as either a cop or a love interest. And I swear, somehow Michael Pitt manages top stumble worse in English than the Mandarin speakers, like he's getting direction to emphasize certain things and can't communicate to the director that he'd sound ridiculous the way Bordizzo can. It's not the first time a character actor who has seemed capable before has sounded like he doesn't speak his own language in one of these movies, but it is one of the more egregious.It's interesting to note that Warner Brothers is distributing it in North America, which might explain its above-average theater count and box office as Chinese films go here (it's made almost two million dollars in the US), perhaps figuring that a movie with enough English dialogue to cut a trailer and a New York setting that has the raw material of a massive hit (the first made $125M in China, and this one has made roughly four times that in three weeks) might cross over. That seems unlikely - the good jokes don't quite balance the bits that feel kind of sloppy - but it's worth checking out whether you're curious about what's a massive hit on the other side of the world or just want to see a big, silly buddy comedy.
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