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This Chinese blockbuster, the third in a series, is an improvement on 2011’s Mystery of the Phantom Flame but doesn’t make enough advances to have Hollywood quaking in its Louboutins yet. Mark Chao shows flashes of wry charisma as Dee Renjie, the semi-mythical Tang dynasty official who, as head of the “Bureau of Investigations”, is styled here as half-Sherlock, half Q-style gadget man, signed off with a neat Poirot-ish tache. Dee finds himself in a tight spot when Emperor Gaozong presents him with the mighty Dragon-Taming Mace and instructions to protect the kingdom from scheming Empress Wu (Carina Lau); she hires a group of mystics from the jiang hu underworld, ancient China’s equivalent of the dodgy boozer, to take it back.
Tsui Hark, perhaps the Hong Kong industry’s most under-appreciated veteran (Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain; Once Upon a Time in China), remains in charge of the franchise. But he hasn’t done his best work upscaling to China’s new multiplex era, and displays no more feel for character than with his last epic, The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014).
Dee’s investigations are not truly suspenseful, or governed by much hard logic. Without these, what remains is a restless action-comedy with a few nice reversals, such as Dee’s assistant’s unlikely flirtation with one of the assassins, and Tsui’s evergreen talent for skittish combat. The energy is undeniable, especially when delivered via giant Taoist albino gorilla, and the creaky effects have an endearing artisanal quality that feels like a Zu Warriors throwback. But it’s not quite enough to give the shopworn eastern fantasy setting any strong personality – certainly nowhere near the level shown by Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, still the pinnacle of what the Chinese industry has shown so far.
Source: The Guardian
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