Empress Wu has a problem: she's trying to build a massive buddha statue for her coronation and important people connected to it keep bursting into flame. And it's not any normal flame either, but one that comes from within, and is triggered by sunlight. She suspects the Prince, or another rival, because some people don't like the idea of a woman ruling China. Or maybe it's because she keeps killing dissidents? Or maybe it's both. Unclear. Regardless, she's got a problem.
Thankfully, the Chaplain (a sort of magical mystery monk) appears as a talking deer and tells her to hire her old enemy Detective Dee, who is in jail because he opposed her rule (either because she's a woman or because she keeps killing dissidents, or both). Despite this idea being pretty illogical, she decides to go ahead and do it. Only, when she sends her right-hand woman, Jing'er, to let Dee out of prison, she finds a crew of assassins already there, and hellbent on assassinating someone (though who, exactly, is not clear). Despite his reservations about the Empress, Dee agrees to head the investigation. Weirdness ensues.
There's a lot to recommend here. It's a visually arresting, big budget flick starring many of Hong Kong's finest, and in the realm of Chinese action films, it's a highly original concept, executed with flair. (Oh, and there's a character named Donkey Wang. Yes, that's right: Donkey Wang. And did I mention that he's not only a licensed physician, but an accomplished black marketeer? Let me repeat: there is a character named Dr. Donkey Wang, and he's the man to see if you need some illicit fire beetles. 36 chambers of awesome.)
Unfortunately, all this comes at a price, and that price is the mystery narrative all this is built around. It's confusing at times, and downright illogical at others. I won't spoil things for you, but suffice to say that when plot twists are revealed, they often render earlier actions unfathomable and purposeless. As many "woah!" moments as the film provides, there are just as many, if not more, points where you just look at the screen and say "huh?" Then the film ends in a sort of "well, we had to do it like this, because it's expected of us" way that will make sense if you've watched a lot of medieval kung fu period pieces, but feels unsatisfying when it could have gone a lot of different ways. This kept DETECTIVE DEE from achieving greatness in my eyes, but I still felt like it was a lot of fun, and worth watching.
Objective Quality: 6/10
Bonuses: +1 for the art direction; +1 for originality; +1 for Dr. Donkey Wang, the greatest character name in Chinese film history
Penalties: -1 for serious problems with the mystery narrative; -1 for the drab ending
Cult Film Coefficient: 7/10