Film Review: Chen Sicheng’s Action Comedy ‘Detective Chinatown 3’

With presumed Western blockbusters such as Black Widow, No Time to Die, and The Eternals delayed until later this year, the rambunctious Detective Chinatown franchise has leaped into the void in a very, very big way. Few, if any movies have ever raked in so much coin in so little time.

The figures speak for themselves: The third entry in the rambunctious and goofy Chinese action series featuring an oddball cop team of a young brainiac and a reckless wild man set an all-time box-office record with a three-day opening weekend haul of $398 million, leading to an opening week total of $621 million.

Among other benchmark achievements were ticket pre-sales of $150 million and an opening day take of $163 million. And all this was achieved even with theater capacity restrictions of 50 and sometimes 75 percent in some situations. After closing down early in 2020, cinemas in China reopened in July.

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In tone and ambition, the Detective Chinatown entries have been compared to the American Rush Hour and Lethal Weapon franchises and it’s clear that the producers went the extra mile to lavish it with high-end Hollywood-level production values. The latest installment was shot entirely with IMAX cameras and each film has been set in a different world capital; Bangkok, New York and now Tokyo have thus far served as the main locations, and London will be next (look out, Mr. Bond).

Seeing Detective Chinatown 3 on a very big screen was a very big deal; it marked the first time I’ve been in a cinema in a full year, and I must thank IMAX for inviting me to see it at the company screening room in Los Angeles. It was a very welcome experience, but a strange one as well. I had the thoroughly sanitized room to myself, so the sense of separation from greater humanity was pronounced and strange since the Detective Chinatown entries are nothing if not great audience pictures. This franchise is directed at the widest possible public, from kids to geriatrics, so it was odd to feel like I was watching it in something akin to an isolation chamber.

For the uninitiated, the Detective Chinatown films are hyper-active entertainments bubbling over with a congenial raucousness; they’re loud, manic, tireless, rambunctious, gross but not too vulgar, sometimes Three Stooges-like in their silly physical pranks and painful predicaments, and always on the move; nothing stays still here for more than a few seconds. They’re Laurel and Hardy on speed, physical opposites who are almost always in overdrive.

Young and slim Qin Feng (played by Liu Haoran) is a straight-arrow detective with the mind of a computer who, in the first film, in 2015, was paired up with Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang), an alleged distant uncle from the back streets of Bangkok with a squat frame, gold front tooth and hysterical disposition that results in lots of shouting and rambunctious physicality. It’s an odd-couple pairing of the first order who indulge in plenty of goofy physical action that becomes more infectious as it goes along.

Liu Haoran, Wang BaoqiangThe second installment, Detective Chinatown 2 (2018), became more ambitious and of markedly higher quality. The action switched to New York City and this was emphatically not an example of a crew spending just a few days on a foreign location for local color; the action ranges all over town, with huge numbers of locales, vehicles and extras involved.

This second entry is the most flat-out entertaining of the trio and the one that makes the most of the cultural differences between the central characters and the location. However, the film’s obliviousness to its attitudes about Americans in general — Black people in particular — will not go unnoticed by Western viewers. For example, a scene involving the two Chinese leads and a large Black man using public urinals is not something you’d see in a contemporary American film.

The franchise is the brainchild of Chen Sicheng, who spent 12 years as an actor before breaking through as writer-director-lead actor on the 2012 TV series Beijing Love Story, which went to 39 episodes, and a follow-up 2014 feature version, which was a massive success.

Its enormous box-office numbers notwithstanding, I have to rate Detective Chinatown 3 as something of a disappointment after the raucously engaging first two entries. The series’ films are structured around the extensive uses of digressions, as Qin, in particular, uses his brilliant intellect and memory to dredge up information and develop theories that will help solve the cases their pair pursue.

This approach reaches and then exceeds the realm of reductio ad absurdum in the third installment. Once the set-up involving the murder of a Japanese crime boss is established, the film builds—or perhaps more accurately descends—into a seemingly never-ending realm of conjecture and hypotheses about what might have happened.

The film becomes such a veritable pile-on of speculation and surprise unknown elements that at some point you’re forced to just give up and ride the wave of theories and probings that pop into Qin’s fertile mind. You just figure this bright kid is eventually going to figure things out since there’s no way you’re going to be able to do it.

This degree of devotion to conjecture, hypothesis and unknowable information might be given a pass by audiences willing to just go with the flow, but the “anything goes” approach will increasingly irritate viewers with a normal desire to be able to follow what’s going on. The director makes a point of keeping everything lively and punchy and distracting on a moment-to-moment basis, but there’s nothing holding the ship together here; ultimately, you just have to check out and go with the flow, as with an amusement park ride.

The first two installments didn’t assume this attitude and were better for it. Also, the goofy Tang doesn’t have quite as much opportunity for inspired nuttiness as he did in the first two outings, further reducing the amusement quotient. Nor is Tokyo nearly as widely or well used as were Bangkok and New York; much of the time you’re stuck at Shibuya Crossing, likely the busiest intersection in the world. Look for some prolonged street closures at Piccadilly Circus in the coming year.

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