Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is not quite a royal treat

Mark Chao as the titular Detective Dee (right) and Lin Gengxin as Shatuo, Dee's handy sidekick in Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings.
Mark Chao as the titular Detective Dee (right) and Lin Gengxin as Shatuo, Dee's handy sidekick in Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

REVIEW / PERIOD FANTASY

DETECTIVE DEE: THE FOUR HEAVENLY KINGS (PG13)

132 minutes/Opens July 26/2.5 stars

The story: The emperor bestows the Dragon-Taming Mace to Detective Dee (Mark Chao). Worried it could be used against her, empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) promptly orders top aide Yuchi (Feng Shaofeng) to steal it with the aid of some highly skilled sorcerers. At the same time, a shadowy clan wants to overturn the Tang dynasty.

The good news is Taiwanese-Canadian heart-throb Chao has lost the smugness in his second outing as the titular sleuth, after Young Detective Dee: Rise Of The Sea Dragon (2013).

The bad news is the franchise - which started with Andy Lau in the title role in Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame (2010) - feels like it's getting to be more and more about less and less.

The film is heavy on computer-generated imagery, which depicts everything from storm clouds being manipulated to a fantastical many-eyed monster conjured up by the shadowy clan.

And the plot is a busy one. Yuchi is leading one group to steal the mace, while another is operating in the shadows to bring about their nefarious aim; add to that an imprisoned sage, a powerful reclusive monk (Ethan Juan) and demonstrations of the art of illusion.

With so much jostling for screen time, even Golden Horse Award Best Actress winner for Soul Mate (2016) Ma Sichun gets short shrift here as a skilled martial artist. Her relationship with Dee's trusted sidekick Shatuo (Lin Gengxin) is also decidedly undercooked.

As is the interplay between sworn brothers Dee and Yuchi. More could have been made of the tension between the two as the empress attempts to drive a wedge between them.

The deus ex machina ending is much too convenient and it also lacks the element of surprise.

The-X-Files-meets-Hardy-Boys vibe of the earlier films has been watered down and in fact, The Four Heavenly Kings in the title does not refer to a central mystery but is almost incidental to the plot.

Ultimately, what is the series about? Not so much the deductive brilliance of Dee but the male anxiety about female authority - which director Tsui Hark had already laid out in the first movie.

Watch the trailer at youtu.be/KM9Np0zdma4