Basically the Sherlock Holmes of 7th-century China, Dee Renjie can read lips, unravel plots and remedy poisonings, plus execute all the kung fu moves required of a Chinese action hero. He does lack one skill, however, as is revealed in his latest adventure, “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon.” Let’s just say that it’s an ability that would be useful in a story full of water.
The sleuth previously appeared, played by the great Andy Lau, in 2010’s “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.” That movie, a comeback for Hong Kong writer-director Tsui Hark, was an international hit, despite being far from the filmmaker’s best work. The new movie is a prequel, and an improvement. It’s more agile and coherent, even if man who plays the younger Dee, Mark Chao, lack Lau’s presence.
A provincial magistrate, Dee arrives in the cosmopolitan capital, Luoyang, as it reels from a crisis. The imperial fleet has been destroyed by a sea monster, and in response the city fathers have decided to sacrifice a beautiful courtesan, Ruiji. (She’s played by a Hong Kong-based actress who calls herself Angelababy.) Whether the dragon has a taste for courtesans is unclear, but the possibility of human sacrifice does give the cartoonish story some grown-up urgency.
Sequestered in preparation for the ceremony, Ruiji is targeted for kidnapping by two different gangs of outlanders. She’s also visited by a menacing-looking water creature, one that’s more man than dragon. Dee and his new sidekick, a prison medic (Lin Gengxin), protect the young woman. Also in the mix is Yuchi (Feng Shaofeng), a red-haired capital magistrate who is sometimes Dee’s ally, sometimes his adversary.
Dee must battle attackers both human and supernatural, learn the tricks of supernatural medicine and periodically rescue Ruiji, all while placating the self-serving Empress Wu (Carina Lau, returning from the previous film). Eventually, of course, there will be a showdown with the ship-shredding dragon.
Tsui was one of the stars of Hong Kong’s 1990s new wave, known for kinetic yet graceful action sequences. But the rise of CGI has taken the edge off his style. “Young Detective Dee” includes some impressive set pieces, including a battle among men who are hanging by ropes from a sheer cliff, as well as a scene in which Dee rides a white horse below the sea.
Amusingly flamboyant as it is, however, that stunt is less rousing than the gravity-defying work Tsui did with stunt men and women in such romps as “Peking Opera Blues” and “Once Upon a Time in China II.” While riding a horse underwater is simply impossible, the exploits of the director’s best movies are made more exhilarating by the knowledge that somebody, somewhere actually did them.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At AMC Loews Hoffman 22 and AMC Loews Rio 18. Contains fantasy violence, scaly monsters and some gamy Chinese medicine. In Mandarin and Dondo dialect with subtitles. 133 minutes.