"Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" finds Tsui Hark, a genre wizard, in top form in this splendid, action-filled period epic. It has opulent, stylized settings of elegance, grandeur and scope, flawless special effects, and awesome martial arts combat staged by the master, Sammo Hung. Yet bravura spectacle never overwhelms either the plot or the key characters. Chang Chia-lu's intricate script bristles with wit and suspense; the film from start to finish is a terrific entertainment.
It is AD 690, and the ruthless Empress Wu (Carina Lau) is about to ascend the throne. To mark the occasion she has ordered the construction of a 66-yard-high statue of a female Buddha in front of her palace. The construction boss (Tony Leung Ka-fai) is under intense deadline pressure when key ministers of the empress start bursting into flames and are swiftly reduced to ashes. The empress believes she has no recourse but to send for that Tang Dynasty Sherlock Holmes, Detective Dee (Andy Lau), whom she had imprisoned eight years earlier for daring to criticize her unscrupulous rise to power. She assigns to Dee her devoted aide Jing'er (Li Bingbing), a dazzling martial arts virtuoso.
The shrewd Dee, an actual historical figure popularized in the novels of Robert van Gulik, realizes he cannot trust anyone. Dee's nonstop adventures take him into a vast underground city and a remote monastery, among many other dangerous locales. What gives the film its edge is that it makes the point that while the empress may be a dragon lady, she may not be involved in the mysterious self-incineration of her ministers. "Detective Dee" has an appeal way beyond fans of Chinese martial arts fantasies.
— Kevin Thomas