Pic about a loony cop who solves crimes through intuition rather than logic is a typically high Wai Ka-fai concept that's still a rewrite or two away from achieving the rigor of a Johnnie To movie.

“Mad Detective” is a neat idea that doesn’t quite hit the bull’s-eye. The first teaming of helmer Johnnie To and writer-helmer Wai Ka-fai since the 2003 Andy Lau muscle-suit drama “Running on Karma,” pic about a loony cop who solves crimes through intuition rather than logic is a typically high Wai concept that’s still a rewrite or two away from achieving the rigor of a To movie. Despite some cherishable, out-there moments, “Detective” is a bumpier dramatic ride than usual from the Milkyway Image alums, signaling more cultish biz than recent To-alone pics like “Exiled.”

Back in the To stable after an absence of several years, Lau Ching-wan plays Inspector Bun, who, in a witty intro, solves a murder by getting his sidekick, Ho Ka-on (Andy On), to zip him up inside a suitcase — like the victim — and chuck it downstairs. “It was the ice cream seller,” he proudly announces as he’s pulled out.

Bun may be brilliant, but he’s also seriously mad, and is fired after cutting off his ear in front of a superior. Five years later, Ho persuades him to help out on an insoluble case, in which two cops entered a forest one night and only one emerged. The missing cop, Wong Kwok-chu, has been AWOL for 18 months and his gun used in a series of armed robberies.

Bun’s gift is that he can supposedly see a person’s “inner personalities,” or hidden ghosts. Pic springs the first of several surprises when Bun and Ho follow the surviving cop, Ko Chi-wai (Lam Ka-tung), to a restaurant and all seven of his multiple personalities are played onscreen by different actors (including To regular Lam Suet).

Bun and Ho later visit the forest and Bun confirms his theory about what happened. The complications pile up, as Ho is uncertain whether Bun is simply 100% bonkers, rather than an inspired detective.

From the restaurant scene onward, the viewer is increasingly led to take nothing onscreen at face value, including Bun’s marriage to May (Taiwanese thesp Kelly Lin), a former police officer. The problem is that Wai and Au Kin-yee’s script seems to follow no particular logic, even on its own terms, and leaves the audience well behind at a fairly early stage.

Lau is nicely cast as Bun, a shambling figure with wild hair, no socks and a manic gleam in his eye; but without the script even partly explaining how Bun intuitively solves his crimes, thesp can’t make him much more than a carnival attraction. On (voiced by Hong Kong cult director Soi Cheang) is largely a reactive cipher; much better is Lam as the complex Ko, though his multiple personality disorder is largely used for comic rather than character-developing effect.

Direction lacks the strong handof To’s solo efforts, and pic shows some signs of rush, with abrupt transitions and lack of flow in the editing. This time around, regular Cheng Siu-keung’s widescreen lensing is just OK, without distinction.

Mad Detective

Hong Kong

Production

A China Star Entertainment release of a One Hundred Years of Cinema presentation of a Milkyway Image (H.K.) production. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai. Executive producer, Charles Heung. Directed by Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai. Screenplay, Wai, Au Kin-yee.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Cheng Siu-keung; editor, Tina Baz; music, Xavier Jamaux; art director, Raymond Chan; costume designer, Stanley Cheung; sound (Dolby Digital), Leung Chung-wai; sound designer, Martin Chappell; assistant director, Jeff Cheung. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (surprise film -- competing), Sept. 5, 2007. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Lau Ching-wan, Andy On, Lam Ka-tung, Kelly Lin, Lee Kwok-lun, Karen Lee, Flora Chan, Eddy Ko, Lam Suet. (Cantonese dialogue)
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