It's a kung fu detective action blockbuster about Di Renjie (630-700 AD), a court official of the Chinese Tang Dynasty and Wu Zetian's Zhou Dynasty. However I suspect the real Di Renjie's life probably didn't involve talking deer, shape-changing magical pins and red-gowned flying martial artists with detachable arms and flying logs. The latter look as if they've escaped from Star Wars.
There's not much point in taking the historical background too seriously. It's fluff. The real Di Renjie was an efficient, honest administrator who did a lot to make people's lives better. Wu Zetian (China's only empress) was capable of being a tyrant who made extensive use of secret police. However Dee has also become a fictional character. Robert van Gulik translated an 18th century detective novel (Dee Goong An) into English in 1949, then went on to write seventeen original books of his own starring Judge Dee (as he called him). Other novelists have since kept up the good work, as have TV stations and movie studios.
This is Tsui Hark's version, although he's since made a prequel (Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon). It's spectacular. It's a China-Hong Kong co-production and it looks way more expensive than your average Hong Kong film, but with just as much kung fu and wire-fu. Imagine something halfway between "historical epic" and "blockbuster". The costumes are magnificent, especially of the imperial court. Everything looks big and expensive. Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is having a Buddha statue built that would probably have been beyond Western engineering for another thousand years. It's insanely huge. You have no idea. If you must watch an action movie, then at least this is a beautiful one.
The plot involves spontaneous combustion, which may or may not be murder. The year is 689 AD. Wu Zetian releases Detective Dee from prison, where he's been for eight years for rebellion, and orders him to investigate. (None of this happened to the real Di, although there was an incident around this time where he was demoted to be the governor of a smaller prefecture. Not quite the same.)
This film has:
(a) The battle between the sexes. Wu Zetian was indeed China's only Empress, her coronation was indeed opposed by traditionalists (as it broke the traditional Chinese order of succession) and she most certainly did have people deposed, tortured and/or killed to smooth her path to power. The film's take on this is actually the best thing about it. We can all empathise with the prejudice and hatred that Wu Zetian faces, but equally the film's not trying to pretend that she's a blushing innocent. She's also capable of being wilfully unreasonable and frustrating. "I order you not to investigate the monastery."
Wu Zetian also has female acolytes, who she sends out as her eyes, ears and strong right arms. Detective Dee (Andy Lau) has to work alongside Li Bingbing, who's acting in precisely that capacity. She's beautiful, but also a take-no-shit martial artist who'll happily order people tortured and can punch through walls. She also has a nude fight scene, but it's been carefully shot to be family friendly.
(That's Li Bingbing, by the way. It's Fan Bingbing who's the ridiculously beautiful one who's in X-Men: Days of Future Past and she's not in this film. They're not related. Bingbing is a given name, not a family one.)
Anyway, the relationship between Wu Zetian and Detective Dee was, for me, the film's dramatic core. Amidst all the kicking and punching, Wu Zetian's a proper character, capable of both goodness and massively selfish cruelty. She knows exactly what she's doing. Meanwhile Dee is the only person who's willing to talk honestly to her, instead of either hating her, being afraid of her or being blindly obedient. He's already been locked up once for rebellion. Been there, done that. He's got nothing more to lose.
(b) A funny fight with a blind man beating up assassins.
(c) An albino who's either evil or has a regrettable attitude.
(d) The world's most unlikely puppets.
(e) Fire beetles that might make you sympathise with vampires.
(f) A willingness to kill major characters.
(g) An elderly character (Chaplain Lu Li) who looks as if he's played by an actor in his twenties, with grey hair and a beard added in make-up.
The film's first half is a little better than its second, I think. The power relationships and male-female conflicts give the film more bite. Later on, my attention would occasionally wander a bit. The action scenes look lovely and they're very well done, but they're still action scenes. There's nothing much wrong with this film. It's a splendidly made example of what it is. However it becomes less interesting as the kung-fu detective plot takes over from the earlier character business (partly due to people getting killed), which the unveiling of a Bond villain in the final act doesn't manage to reverse.
In short, a lavish spectacular. The action's impressive. The historical setting looks a million dollars. Heartily recommended to people who like that sort of thing. I'm not quite the target audience, but I can acknowledge that it's a hugely successful romp from one of Hong Kong's most celebrated directors. The historical angle makes it better too.
"To achieve greatness, everyone is expendable."