Detective Dee has received the Dragon Taming Mace, and Empress Wu is not best pleased about this. Desperate to get her hands on the legendary sword, the power-hungry ruler decides to enlist the help of four unruly assassins and Dee’s colleague in the Golden Army, Yuichi (Feng Haofeng), to steal it back. Yuichi is in two minds over the task, though, and when a mysterious lost tribe make their way into the fray, he, Dee, and his righthand man Shatuo, team up to stop them from bringing down the Tang dynasty for good.
The third film in the Detective Dee franchise, The Four Heavenly Kings is actually a prequel to the 2010 film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. But that’s not all as it’s also a sequel to 2013’s Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon. Confusing chronology aside, Tsui Hark’s third outing in the much-loved fantasy epic proves to be a fun -if CGI-heavy- chapter in the character’s life. Even seen as a standalone film, the story still manages to be entertaining.
Starring Mark Chao in the eponymous detective role, and Carina Lau as the menacing Empress Consort, it becomes clear from the offset that this is a character-driven film. Chao is calm and collected as Dee, unfazed by the impending destruction as he maintains control no matter what comes his way. Lau, who is the only star to have been in all three Detective Dee films, is the thread that links them all together, and who gives a fascinating, if ominous, portrayal of the reagent.
While these two are, in hindsight, the lead characters, it doesn’t necessarily feel that way as the film plays out. Dee seems to take a back seat for much of the film, making an appearance only when it’s necessary for plot development. Instead, The Four Heavenly Kings has Shatuo (played by Kenny Lin) front and centre, whose boyish charm makes it easy to love him, especially when he is given an adorable love story with the assassin Water Moon (Sandra Ma).
Characters aside, the film also boasts an incredible amount of CGI which culminates in an entertaining climactic fight that features -amongst other things- an albino gorilla and a giant straight out of hell. While these animated creatures certainly look like they’ve been rendered off a computer, their use and cartoon-like quality make sense with the narrative. They’re loud and colourful, exactly what you want from a film like this.
At the end of the day, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is meant to be fun, and it certainly fulfils that expectation. To best understand the characters, and their relationships with each other, it is probably best to see the other two films in the franchise. But, if not, this is as good an introduction as any.
Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is out in selected cinemas now.
Director: Tsui Hark
Release: Out Now
From: Cine Asia
Format: Theatrical Release
Age Rating: 12A