Tsui Hark’s second prequel to his career-resurrecting hit Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), picks up right where there previous installment, Rise of the Sea Dragon, left off: Tang Emperor Gaozong entrusting Di Renjie (Mark Chao) with the Dragon-taming mace, a powerful weapon made of stardust steel and a symbol of his promotion to the highest level of responsibility towards the throne. But Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), the Emperor’s chief consort and co-ruler of the Chinese empire, views this promotion as a critical mistake, and she orders Yuchi Zhenjin (William Feng), the head of the Justice Department and Di Renjie’s sworn brother after the events of the previous film, to recover the mace. Torn between brotherly loyalty and imperial duty, and highly suspicious of the shady quartet of Taoist fighters the Empress assigned to assist him, Yuchi nevertheless obeys orders. Yet Di Renjie is always one step ahead, and Wu Zetian – councelled by a mysterious faceless lord – resorts to framing him for an assassination attempt on a member of the imperial family. Things are further complicated by the appearance at the imperial court of a giant, deadly golden dragon.

Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee films never had much to do with their source material, whether it be the real-life Tang dynasty judge, the Ming dynasty novel immortalizing him but focusing more on the punishment of the guilty than on the solving of the mystery, or Robert Van Gulik’s adaptation of it into a series of Eastern-flavored Sherlock Holmes-style investigations. Instead Tsui preferred to mix political intrigue with grand-guignol and fantasy – to great box-office success. But while the first two installments did feature a central mystery (namely the “phantom flame” and the “sea dragon”), The Four Heavenly Kings largely focuses on political machination and phantasmagorical displays, with its mysterious deadly golden dragon appearing only one hour into the film, and quickly explained away.

But that is not the only tweak Tsui brings to his formula: while still central, Di Renjie is now given less screen time, disappearing for one or two extended stretches of film, in favor of William Feng’s Yuchi and Kenny Lin’s Shatuo – the latter having become Di’s sidekick in the previous film. Thus the film rests on a central trio (and teases a central quartet for the next film, with one key character joining the team) that is efficiently complementary and powered by strong chemistry. Mark Chao’s Di is the brains and wisdom, with the actor much more comfortable and appealing than in the previous film, in which he felt like a walking “where the hell is Andy Lau” sign; William Feng dials it up with a performance that borders on weirdness at times, but is never less than impeccably charismatic, while Kenny Lin graduates from Watson figure to full comic relief, bumbling around at times annoyingly (Lin is simply not very likable, to our eyes at least), and a times amusingly (the character’s failure to fly around in fights like his comrades is hilarious).

The plot is actually a very simple story of revenge, dressed up in countless convolutions and a few false starts; and though the film is rarely confusing, it presents the usual pacing issues of any recent Tsui Hark film. The director (here co-editor as well) has seemingly never heard of the fact that scenes can be deleted. To many, his trademark narrative proliferation is a strength. Yet franchise newcomers Ma Sichun, very striking and stealing a few scenes as a conflicted assassin, and Ethan Juan, intriguing as a powerful monk, are underused, with the former being given a particularly half-assed character arc, and an unconvincing, chemistry-free budding romance with Kenny Lin’s character. Carina Lau is as fiendishly regal and royally fiendish as usual, but her character is too one-note here, compared to the nuances she was able to display in the previous films.

While CGI is not always polished (no surprise here), set and costume design are – no surprise here either – lavish and a constant bliss, while Kenji Kawai returns with his enjoyably bloated, epic musical themes. And indeed as a pure spectacle, The Four Heavenly Kings holds its own gloriously next to the previous installments. Action director Lin Feng (taking over for Sammo Hung in Phantom Flame and Yuen Bun in Sea Dragon) delivers some of the best set pieces of the franchise, with ever-more creative weaponry, and zany, inventive Taoist wizardry: in a way this is a better Miracle Fighters remake than the recent (and nevertheless solid) Tsui Hark-produced The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (and it does share with it a Tsui-ish love of red tentacles). The pick of the bunch may be an exciting face-off between William Feng and an assassin, atop and around the statues of the titular Heavenly Kings, though the protracted finale has to be seen to be believed. It is a gloriously demented battle royale involving a giant white ape (and indeed there’s a hilarious “King Kong in the Tang Dynasty” sight gag that’s just irresistible), swarms of flying ninja-like fighter, and a tentacled monster shooting eyeballs at the enemy. Also leaving a lasting and hilarious impression is a scene where key exposition is delivered to Kenny Lin by a giant fish, during a glorious trip sequence.

Long Story Short: The most spectacular Detective Dee film yet, The Four Heavenly Kings is not interested in investigation, and suffers from the same pacing issues and CGI surfeit as its predecessors, but delights at every turn with some of the director’s zaniest visions yet. ***1/2

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