At their dazzling but infrequent best, the Detective Dee movies give preposterousness a good name. Busy, extravagant and deliriously overwrought, they mix the dynastic power struggles of 7th century China with the puzzles of mid-tier Sherlock Holmes, padded out with sorcery, swordplay, gravity-defying acrobatics and wildly undisciplined CGI. At the center of it all is the suavely rational Detective Dee Renjie (Mark Chao), who, early on in his latest adventure, diagnoses the cause of all this ostentatiously swirling mayhem: “dangerous people with weird skills.”
That pretty much sums up the movie and its eye-tickling, surface-level pleasures. In “Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings,” a lavish, somewhat laborious fantasy set during the Tang dynasty, those dangerous people include an army of enchanters, each with their own dark-magic expertise and an impasto of sinister face paint. Their skills are as weird as advertised: One of them bursts into flames a lot, while another hides herself in other people’s shadows. Hailing from the Jianghu underworld, they operate in service of the scheming Empress Wu (Carina Lau, gilded and ruthless), who’s determined to wrest control of the imperial court away from her husband, the Emperor (Sheng Chien).
Following the events of “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon” (2013), in which Dee successfully defeated a nasty Sino-Kraken, the Emperor now regards the detective so highly that he tasks him with safeguarding a much-coveted, all-powerful weapon called the Dragon-Taming Mace. (The club, not the pepper spray.) Naturally, the mace has barely entered Dee’s possession before Empress Wu’s spellcasting mercenaries set out to steal it, triggering a series of elaborate diversions and lethal booby traps involving boomerang-like blades, mysterious poisons, cluttered flashbacks and mistaken identities.
All this is more or less what you’d expect from the twisty conventions of wuxia, the martial-arts fantasy genre of which the writer-director Tsui Hark has long been a prolific and inventive practitioner. What you may not be prepared for is the movie’s outlandish left turn into creature-feature territory, complete with what feel like bizarrely unmotivated shoutouts to “King Kong” and “Tremors.” I didn’t quite know what to make of the big white ape, the jumbo psychedelic fish, the spider-legged Ringwraiths or the big red tentacle explosion. The slimy giant covered with pustule-like eyeballs, however, sure did aggravate my trypophobia.
We are a long way from the wily and imaginative action classics, among them the peerless “Peking Opera Blues” (1986), that once paved Tsui’s entry into the pantheon of Hong Kong new wave directors. But then, the rise of a more blockbuster-friendly sensibility was apparent even before he made “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” (2010), the first film in the series but the third one chronologically. That movie was a ravishing if clumsy hybrid of ancient traditions and newfangled technology; in the face of so much digital spectacle, you could feel the human element slipping away.
Tsui tries to preserve that human element in fits and starts throughout “Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings” but to little avail. As in the previous film, Dee maintains a strong if sometimes conflicted bond with Yuchi Zhenjin (Shaofeng Feng, scowler extraordinaire), a sworn guardian of the court whom the Empress tries to sway against him. There’s a spot of romance between one of Dee’s loyal, bumbling allies (Lin Gengxin) and a young assassin (Ma Sichun) who’s not above a little bathhouse flirtation.
As for Dee himself: His detective skills, which include note-perfect crime-scene reconstruction and lip reading, feel even more perfunctory than usual in the wake of all the supernatural intrigue. (You can only deduce so much when the laws of physics can be suspended at will.) I still miss Andy Lau, the Hong Kong superstar who originated the role in “Phantom Flame,” though the handsome Chao makes an agreeably mellow replacement. His Dee is invariably the most sane, grounded person in every scene, though once it’s time to bust out the wireworks, he can leap from rafter to rafter with the best of them. It’s the movie that never takes flight.
‘Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings’
In Mandarin with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Playing: AMC Santa Anita 16, Arcadia, and AMC Atlantic Times Square 14, Monterey Park