Director: Wai Ka Fai
Cast: Sean Lau, Charlene Choi, Raymond Lam, Tan Kai, Carlos Chan, Kathy Yuen, Deep Ng, Carmen Lee
Runtime: 1 hr 42 mins
Rating: NC16 (Violence)
Released By: mm2 Entertainment
Opening Day: 21 July 2022
Synopsis: When HongKong is rocked by multiple gruesome murders, the police forms a task force to investigate. Jun (Sean Lau), once a brilliant detective who suffered a mental breakdown, begins his own investigation. Eventually, the police learn that the murder victims are all suspects of cold cases being rubbed out by a figure known as ‘The Sleuth’. Now, Jun and a detective from the task force are in a race against time to beat the brutal killer at its own game.
Reuniting with Wai Ka-fai 15 years after their critically praised ‘Mad Detective’, Lau Ching Wan plays a similarly unhinged inspector in the frenetic ‘Detective Vs Sleuths’. Though they share the same nickname (loosely translated as ‘God Detective’), the characters Lau plays in both movies are not the same person or related, so think of this latest as a spiritual sequel, not least because that which Lau played in ‘Mad Detective’ died at the end of the movie.
A busy prologue establishes Lau’s Jun Lee as a brilliant crime-solver, who is so exasperated at his former peers in the police force for botching the investigations of two high-profile murder cases known as ‘The Butcher’ and ‘The Devil’s Cop’ that he storms into a press conference to hold an officer hostage in order to prove to all how the latter crime was committed. Fast forward 17 years later, Jun is now a vagrant estranged from his daughter whom he still dearly misses.
Jun’s investigative instincts are piqued once again when a mysterious group of hooded vigilantes who call themselves ‘The Chosen Sleuths’ start executing the culprits of these past unsolved cases in the name of justice. Besides revenge, these vigilantes also intend to call out the incompetence of the police force, pointing to their subsequent victims by leaving specific case numbers at the crime scene. As Jun chases down the criminals on his own, he finds an unexpected ally in female inspector Yee (Charlene Choi), who is both intrigued by his legendary powers of detection but frightened at the delusions which Jun experiences of the victims.
Yee is in turn married to fellow police officer Fong (Raymond Lam), both of whom we learn later on are intimately connected to ‘The Butcher’ and ‘The Devil’s Cop’ cases. Whilst Yee embraces Jun’s brilliance, Fong and the rest of the police force, including Jun’s former partner turned Commissioner (Carman Lee), are much less convinced, so much so that Yee will break with her colleagues halfway through the movie to chase down the Sleuths with Jun on their own.
To say more would be spoiling the surprises which Wai has up his sleeve, which are inspired to say the least. Though not as prolific as in the last two decades, Wai proves he has lost none of his screenwriting brilliance, especially in the last third where he turns his intense crime thriller into a moral fable about crime and punishment, quoting from no less than Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Beyond Good and Evil’. Indeed, it is to his credit that Jun becomes such a compelling tragic protagonist in the finale, struggling within himself to break the cycle of hatred and revenge.
Yet it is also true that Wai is without his co-director Johnnie To here, and as those familiar with his previous solo outings will know, the absence is palpable. Without To’s steady hand, Wai’s own pacing and choreography is haphazard and often messy. Like we said at the start, the film moves at a frenzied clip, leaving little room for the characters’ motivations to be fully explored; that ironically undermines the nuances in Wai’s own screenplay, and often threatening to diminish it to a standard-issue action movie. Wai also lacks To’s knack for staging gunfights with cool efficiency, so much so that the shootouts come off hectic but uninvolving, and ultimately exhausting.
Through the chaos, Wai at least keeps the story anchored on Jun; and thanks to Lau’s magnificently layered performance, the film never does fully go off the rails. Despite’s Wai’s tendencies, Lau avoids taking his character’s idiosyncrasies to exaggerated proportions, so that Jun remains relatable and even unexpectedly poignant. Choi and Lam deliver solid turns that rank among their best, and the other supporting cast (including Jeano Ho as Jun’s daughter) and Kathy Yuen and Carlos Chan as fellow officers turned sleuths) are just as fine, but the film belongs to Lau through and through.
Given how it reunites Wai and Lau after more than a decade, it is inevitable that expectation is high for ‘Detective Vs Sleuths’. Those expecting the same polish as ‘Mad Detective’ will inevitably be disappointed, as Wai proves yet again he is not yet at the same level of directorial mastery as To; yet, given the dearth of Hong Kong police dramas in recent years, Wai’s latest still marks a welcome return to the genre, a flawed but entertaining addition whose flashes of brilliance is unfortunately dimmed by an unyielding rush from start to finish.
(Less mad brilliance than mad rush, this gritty crime thriller is nonetheless anchored by a magnificently layered performance by Lau Ching Wan)
Review by Gabriel Chong