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Detective Chinatown 3
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by Jay Seaver

"Next stop: Tokyo!"
3 stars

The first "Detective Chinatown" offered up the sort of simple, repeatable formula that mystery lovers have long been fond of - mismatched private eyes cracking new cases in and about Chinatowns all over the world - but this third entry at times feels a bit like a victim of the series's success. It's reached the scale where everything's got to be bigger than a typical mystery story to justify shooting with the Imax cameras and all the other things a series on this trajectory gets while also developing the sort of inter-film continuity that indicates something trying to make the leap from a series to a saga. It remains at its best when it stays closest to its roots, and fortunately still has enough of that to entertain.

This time around, deductive savant Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) and his, shall we say, more intuitive uncle Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) are headed to Tokyo, where yakuza Harasu Watanabe (Tomokazu Miura) has been accused of murdering his rival to develop the city's growing Chinatown. It's a pretty open-and-shut case - they were the only two in the "Watery Hall", a meeting room with only one entrance in the middle of a lake - with never-defeated Superintendent Naoki Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano) making the arrest. And while they are teamed with "King of Tokyo" Hiroshi Noda (Satoshi Tsumabuki), Tang is infatuated with star witness Anna Kobayashi (Masami Nagasawa), they're being dogged by rival Thai detective Jack Jaa (Tony Jaa), and somehow escaped sex criminal Akito Murata (Shota Sometani) is involved.

It's not exactly a great mystery; the how of it is not that difficult to suss out and the why is fairly late-developing. Writer/director Chen Sicheng still wears his influences on his sleeve - he name-drops John Dickson Carr and clearly both shares and respects Feng's fondness for locked-room-mysteries enough to play that part of the movie straight, and the visuals of Feng working a problem out are as slick and fun to watch as ever. The inevitable courtroom finale winds up a case of Chen telling a neat little story that doesn't really have that much to do with what came before. It's thin enough that Chen fills much of the film's second half with a storyline that theoretically reaches back to the first film - including a brief appearance by Zhang Zifeng as a character I had completely forgotten and whom my my review of the first says "fits into the story somehow" - and which will inevitably lead into the next film, judging from the way the tease of the next Chinatown to be visited is structured. It's little more than a tease, sometimes fun for the cast involved, but it's a lot of material for this movie that won't pay off for at least a couple more years.

It's also a story that is entirely about Qin Feng, which further upsets the balance between stars Liu Haoran and Wang Baoqiang, to the point where one almost gets the feeling that Chen would like to jettison Wang's Tang Ren and just give the movies to Liu, who has come into his own as a star in the past six years. Where the first film could contrast the bookish, introverted Qin Feng with the boorish-but-instinctive Tang Ren, a more confident Feng leaves Ren with little to do but be dumb, and while Wang still dives into it enthusiastically, there's less reward. They're surrounded by what's possibly the series's best cast - international star Tadanobu Asano walks away with every scene he's given, of course, but Masami Nagasawa, Satoshi Tsumabuki, and Shota Sometani are all fairly well-known in Japan and never give guest-star type performances. Then there's Tony Jaa, who as a Thai actor in a Chinese film set in Japan naturally delivers most of his lines in English; he's able to deliver a lot of charisma in a role that is more than a bit self-parodying on top of one pretty decent fight. Tweak the script a bit to make his Jack and Ren more earnest rivals, and you might have something.

Of course, a large part of the fun of these movies for their Chinese audiences is goofing on the various locations the characters travel, and it's a huge source of energy from the start where the "Welcome To Tokyo" opening number posits that Tang Ren and Qin Feng have been dropped in the middle of a Tokyo made up entirety of bombastic Japanese movies, with schoolgirls and yakuza alike breaking into fights all over the airport. It's a candy-colored live-action anime wrapped around a gritty yakuza film, and while it crashes hard into cliché and lazy comedy at times, it seldom lacks for energy. Chen and his team are also able to switch things up a bit when, say, the material involving Akito Murata might rub people the wrong way if treated as a joke.

Another sequel is all but assured - after a year's delay, it had a tremendous opening in China for Lunar New Year, even if "Hi, Mom" was the bigger story at the Chinese box office - and despite some occasional frustrations here, "Detective Chinatown 3" is entertaining more often than not. As someone who has generally enjoyed the series and has liked the Japanese cast members in a number of other movies, seeing them intersect here was a bunch of fun. If that's the route Chen and company take with the fourth installment, it could be the best in the series.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34475&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/06/21 23:43:31
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