Director Tsui Hark returns to the magical world of China's Tang Dynasty that he introduced in his 2010 film 'Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame'; however, this second installment, 'Rise of the Sea Dragon', is actually the detective's first case. This likely won’t be a surprise as the character is identified as "Young Detective Dee" in the title, and now features Mark Chao in place of Andy Lau. But the character's skills remain the same as does Hark's directorial style, both of which continue to bring to mind the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. version of Sherlock Holmes.
Set 24 years earlier than 'Mystery of the Phantom Flame' in 665AD, the film opens with the aforementioned Sea Dragon, an enormous creature, attacking the Imperial fleet and destroying many ships. Empress Wu (Carina Lau, reprising her role from 'Phantom Flame') has tasked Chief Minister Yuchi (Feng Shaofeng) to solve the mystery of the creature within 10 days or he will lose his head. Thirty-year-old Dee arrives on scene as a young courtesan, Lady Yin (Angelababy), is paraded through the streets before her sacrifice to appease the Sea Dragon. She was selected because she denies all the men who pursue her.
A gang of bandits plans to kidnap Yin, but Dee catches on thanks to his lip-reading ability, which is a bit odd as the main bandit looks at Dee looking at him while he is talking. He goes to the headquarters of Da Lisi, the Imperial police force, for help but is ignored. On his way to the temple where Yin is staying, he catches the attention of Yuchi who follows along with his men. As Dee fights the bandits, Yin is nearly taken away by an odd-looking odd creature, called a spirit of the Sea Dragon, adding another twist to the story. Yuchi places Dee under arrest alongside the bandits. It makes no sense for Yuchi to do so except the writers need Dee to meet a character who is going to push the plot in a specific direction.
While it comes with a "Not Rated" designation, 'Rise of the Sea Dragon' seems intended to be a family film, offering something for everyone. There's action for dad but nothing too gory, romance for mom but nothing too sexy, and fantasy for the kids. However, incorporating the different elements contributes to this story feeling a bit overstuffed as Dee not only has to stop the Empire from being overthrown and save a doomed love affair, but he also has to defeat a gigantic monster at sea. The story also suffers from too bland of a main character. There's not much that stands out about him that makes him memorable. He's smart enough and good enough of a fighter to save the day because nothing is much of a challenge for him, but the character doesn't makes me think, "I want to see him in another adventure."
Script issues aside, there was enough action and effects to entertain me. In this magical world, nothing appears too outlandish for Hark and his crew. During one fight, there are some 'CSI'-type visuals on display to show the damage done. There's a great close-up of an insect in flight being sliced apart, and a wild shot of two horses with riders running into each other. The final battle with the Sea Dragon is an impressive sequence, and I accepted all that Dee and his horse did. Things really go far with Yuchi's ridiculous jumping ability. It was silly how over the top it was.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Well Go USA's 'Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon' comes on a 25 GB Region A Blu-ray disc housed in a standard blue case, which is contained within a slipcover. After an ad promoting Well Go USA, there are trailer for 'Special ID', 'The Wrath of Vajra', and 'Badges of Fury'.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 2.39:1. It delivers great, vivid colors, from deep reds to bright golds, and consistent fleshtones (even the green ones). Blacks are inky with a minor bit of crush during the night scenes. Contrast is solid and there's no grain. The picture is sharp, revealing very fine details in the fantastic costumes by Pik Kwan Lee and Bruce Yu, as well as the texture in the location from the Empress' palace to the prison. When using real objects, the shots have depth to them. When there is a predominance of CGI, the depth is limited.
The audio is available in Mandarin DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0. During the first naval sequence, the 5.1 track reveals a wide dynamic range as the waves crash loudly and the banners ripple softly in the wind. There's great rumbling from the bass here and throughout. The sea dragon can be heard swimming across the channels, creating a sense of location and depth. The climatic scene where the Dragon destroys the pier presents a very immersive experience.
As the opening credits roll, the score is too loud on bottom end, causing some subwoofer distortion. When the Dragon leaps over ship, the subwoofer rattles again. Dialogue appears mixed well with effects and score.
'Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon' delivers good action for those who like a blend of fantasy and martial arts and aren't much concerned about story and character. The high-def presentation is very good, but the lack of extras makes me hesitant to recommend adding it to your library. But if action is all you crave, you might consider a purchase.