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Even though I knew nothing about it going in, I really ended up enjoying Tsui Hark’s big-budget mystery/fantasy Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010). The film was a gorgeous bit of eye-candy that managed to throw Sherlock Holmes-style crime analysis, wire-fu martial arts acrobatics and pure adventure-fantasy, ala Indiana Jones, into a blender. Anchored by a genuinely cool hero in the form of Andy Lau’s Detective Dee and some righteously astounding stunt work, the movie felt like a throwback to the ’80s fantasy epics that I grew up, although with some decidedly modern flourishes (Tsui Hark tends to be a “kitchen-sink” kind of filmmaker, which suits this kind of story to a t). When Tsui Hark released the prequel, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013), I relished the opportunity to return to his particular vision of ancient China. How would this stack up with the first film? With a new lead replacing Andy Lau (this is, after all, “young” Detective Dee), would the film still find its human center or would everything get swallowed up in the visuals? As a prequel, would this tell me anything new about Dee? Would the new film have any setpieces to rival the giant Buddah statue scene from the first film? And, most importantly: was there actually going to be a dragon?

We begin back in Imperial China, during the Tang Dynasty, in 665 AD. Dee (Mark Chau) isn’t even a detective yet but he is determined to make his mark in the city of Woyang. Some massive sea monster has completely destroyed the imperial fleet and scared the crap out of the superstitious populace, leading the all-powerful Empress Wu (Carina Lau, reprising her role from the first film) to take some decisive action. To that end, she gives Yuchi (Shaofeng Feng), the head of the Justice Department, a pretty simple order: get to the bottom of the Sea Dragon “nonsense” or die trying. While in the city, Dee happens to overhear a group of shady individuals planning to kidnap Yin Ruiji (Angelababy), the courtesan who is the planned sacrifice for the feisty sea monster. Dee rushes to the nearby temple to intervene, leading to his first confrontation with Yuchi and his Da Lisi security force. This also leads to our first introduction to another kind of monster: some sort of “Creature From the Black Lagoon”-type fishman appears and starts to wreck holy hell on the wannabe kidnappers. Yin Ruiji is saved, the kidnappers are vanquished and the fishman escapes. Slightly peeved at the outsider’s interference, Yuchi rewards Dee’s assistance by tossing him in lockup.

Once in jail, Dee ends up escaping with the able help of young doctor’s assistant Shatuo (Gengxin Lin), who Dee sways to his side via some rather ingenious Sherlock Holmes-style deduction. When Dee ends up foiling yet another kidnapping attempt on Ruiji, he’s promptly promoted up into the Da Lisi and given control of the Sea Dragon case. This, of course, doesn’t make Yuchi particularly happy but it sure as hell beats getting his head cut off. As Dee, Shatuo and Yuchi continue to investigate the case, other elements begin to come into play, including a potential spy within the Da Lisi, themselves. They also come to the realization that the Creature From the Woyang Lagoon is actually Yuan Zhen (Bum Kim), the formerly hunky owner of the Tranquility Teahouse and Yu Ruiji’s vanished boyfriend. Yuan has been turned into a monster thanks to some nasty parasites and it all appears to have something to do with his teahouse’s connection to the royal family: the entire royal court drink Tranquility Teahouse’s special “Bird’s Tongue Tea” by the bucketful and Dee deduces that the royals might be the actual targets here. Suffice to say that the actual conspiracy is a pretty baroque one, certainly befitting of a James Bond film and involves an assassination attempt, transformation, a misguided attempt to foster peace that’s actually an attempt to take over the world (in disguise), an honest-to-god sea monster, the healing power of eunuch urine, true love and the beginning of a legend.

Despite some truly silly, over-the-top moments, Rise of the Sea Dragon is a more than worthy successor to The Mystery of the Phantom Flame. While Andy Lau’s older Detective Dee is the calm, clear-headed master crime-solver, Mark Chao’s younger Dee is a more brash, reactive presence and the contrast works spectacularly well. There’s an actual progression that happens throughout the film, a character arc for Dee that finds him becoming someone much closer to the Dee we came to know in the first film. This allows Chao to play Dee in his own fashion, which ends up being just as rock-solid reliable as Lau’s version. This isn’t necessarily even a case of Sean Connery vs Roger Moore: Chao doesn’t play Dee like a different person, just a younger person..it’s a subtle but important difference. As with any large-scale film of this nature, such as the aforementioned Indiana Jones films, it’s vitally important to have a strong, memorable central character and Rise of the Sea Dragon delivers just as capably as Phantom Flame did.

The rest of the cast is strong, with Shaofeng Feng being particularly good as Dee’s rival, Yuchi. Yuchi could have come across as a stereotypical antagonist but Feng gives him enough personality and humility to make him stand out. While you occasionally get the impression that he’s giving Dee the business “just because,” Yuchi almost always seems to operate from a slightly higher moral field: the bit where he finally breaks down and gives Dee the horse is a nice touch because it doesn’t symbolize the clichéd “Let’s be buddies” aspect of films so much as it does a tacit acceptance of Dee’s place in the system. By the time that Yuchi and Dee are fighting side by side, their camaraderie actually feels justified rather than situational.

From a spectacle standpoint, Rise of the Sea Dragon delivers the goods time and time again. Even though the film appears to have been originally intended as a 3D presentation (I lost count of the number of things that jabbed towards the screen at any given time), the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and crystal clear, revealing ever bit of action is Hark’s stuffed-to-bursting frames. The underwater scenes, in particular, are some of the clearest and most well-defined I’ve ever seen. There are just as many breathless setpieces as in the first film, including some suitably thrilling maritime fight sequences, and the design on the Sea Dragon is excellent and fairly unique. All of the (numerous) fight sequences have a nice sense of staging and blocking to them that makes the complicated acrobatics easy to follow and keeps everything grounded (in a figurative rather than literal sense) with an overall sense of real physical action. One of my favorite scenes in some time has to be the one where Dee and Yuchi fight the villainous Huo Yi while suspended over a bottomless chasm: it’s not only great to look at but so ingeniously staged that the fight becomes something akin to a ballet. Despite the occasionally overly glossy visuals (think next-generation videogame cut-scenes), most of the film takes place in a space that feels at least as real as Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth.

The film also utilizes a style similar to the “information overload” aspect of Guy Ritchie’s recent Sherlock Holmes films: we gently plenty of sidebars, charts, graphs, text-on-screen, etc. At one point, Dee hits someone and we zoom into their body for an up-close and personal look at how the bone is going to break. As a rule, I tend to find stuff like this rather distracting in a film, especially when utilized in the manner that Ritchie did for Sherlock Holmes (2009): truth be told, I really can’t stand that film, mostly for this selfsame reason. While I found the technique to be little distracting in The Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Hark seems to have integrated it better within the follow-up. Although it’s still an overly flashy stylistic trick, I was willing to cut it a little more slack this time around. Whether that says more about me mellowing or the film itself remains to be seen but perhaps it’s time to give ol’ Sherlock another try.

While the unnecessary voice-over narration and occasionally silly aspects scuff the polish on Rise of the Sea Dragon just a tad, it was never enough to affect my overall enjoyment of the film. Whereas I went into the first film completely unprepared, I came to Rise of the Sea Dragon with a particular set of expectations, expectations which the film resoundingly met. I’ve always been a sucker for huge, epic fantasy adventures and Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon fits the bill in almost every way. At this point, I hope Hark continues his Detective Dee films into the distant future, turning this character into a Chinese form of James Bond. Hell, in many ways, the films are almost there: Cool, charismatic hero who’s great under pressure? Check. Lots of conspiracy and spy intrigue? Check. Memorable villains with secret island fortresses and plots to rule the world? Check. Plenty of thrilling action sequences? Check. A steel-toothed thug named Jaws? Not yet but give ’em time: this is only the second film, after all. I have a feeling that Tsui Hark still has a few more tricks up his sleeve…I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Detective Dee in these here parts.