Film Review: ‘Detective Chinatown 2’

A noisy, rowdy mystery-comedy set in New York, this sequel cleverly mixes Chinese feng shui with Western detective methods.

In “Detective Chinatown 2,” the louder and dumber sequel to the 2016 sleeper hit, set in Bangkok, about a buffoonish ex-cop and his genius detective sidekick, the pair takes on the Big Apple alongside an NYPD detective to solve a rash of grisly serial murders. Though less of a brainteaser than the original film, director-writer Chen Sicheng infuses Chinese color into a plot that solves crimes by using feng shui as clues, making things accessible and intriguing to local and international audiences alike. The film has thrashed all rival hits released during Chinese New Year to climb to the top of the heap, grossing $494 million and still counting. Such a result says less about the film’s quality than the festive timing and mainlanders’ taste for rowdy humor and foreign locations.

However, the sequel’s worst enemy is its lead actor Wang Baoqiang, who dials up his bumbling, bragging and vulgar persona Tang Ren to intolerable levels. Bawling out every line of dialogue and bouncing around like an agitated monkey, he keeps pushing co-star Liu Haoran out of the frame, even though Haoran’s character Qin Feng is the one solving the crimes. Those playing the large contingent of racially diverse supporting roles either overact wildly to jostle for attention, or fade out.

Qin receives a message from cousin Tang inviting him to attend a wedding in New York. When he arrives at the banquet, he discovers that the bride’s eclectic mix of guests consists of sleuths who top the rankings of online app Crimemaster. They’ve been lured by a $6 million reward to catch the murderer of the grandson of Uncle Seven (Kenneth Tsang), godfather of Chinatown. As old-shoe as any episode of “Scoobie Doo,” this motley crew lays down the cartoonish tone of the film, but only one of them — Kiko (Xiang Yuxian) the annoying moody teenager, advances the plot, using her cyber-hacking skills.

All else pales in outlandishness to Tang’s dressed-to-kill entrance, sporting an Afro wig, loud gold chains and darkened skin that looks suspiciously like blackface. Qin, who knows he’s been duped into helping Tang nab the reward, nonetheless goes along with things, provoked by the contempt shown him by prickly NYPD officer Chen Ying (Natasha Liu Bordizzo, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2”).

Seven’s grandson was found dead inside a Chinatown temple, his liver ripped out while he was still alive and semi-conscious. Qin, using his deductive skills, zeroes in on the murder of a white woman whose body washed up in the Hudson Bay, her kidney removed. What links them is an esoteric Chinese symbol found at the scenes of the crimes. Qin identifies illegal alien Song Yi (actor-director Xiao Yang, who played a supporting role in the first instalment) as a suspect.

As Qin and Tang go after Song, they come up against Seven’s shady nephew Lu Guofu (Wang Xun) and his goons. Their misadventures become excuses for sneering lambasts of American culture, in scenes that include Song teaching a class of trigger-happy students; a gay encounter with Hells Angels in a bar; and most vile of all, a smutty gag in a hospital that makes fun of an African-American nurse’s well-endowed bosom and hips.

More escapades ensue, including a consultation with Tang’s kung-fu and occult master Mo Youqian (Yuen Wah, “Kungfu Hustle”) and a visit to the New York Central Library. Just as a plot point midway through the original “Detective Chinatown” reveals an astonishing twist that’s been cunningly embedded in the silly horseplay, the sequel’s scattershot narrative also functions as a deceptive lull.

After the detectives stumble into the third murder, things suddenly get riveting when Tang’s obsesssion with feng shui helps Qin make a cognitive breakthrough. Just as Hollywood thrillers like “Seven” draw on biblical sources, Chen hinges his mystery on traditional Chinese physiology. A possible influence here is Taiwanese director-producer Chen Kuo-fu’s psycho-horror pic “Double Vision” (2002), with its combination of Taoist beliefs and Western scientific investigative models. However, “Detective Chinatown 2” operates on a lower intellectual level, and even compared with Part 1, figuring out the culprit is a cinch for anyone familiar with genre conventions.

As if aware that the resolution of the mystery is too simple, and the culprit’s motives a little shaky, the script devises another partial reversal at the end, which complicates but doesn’t necessarily elevate its development. Japanese A-list actor Satoshi Tsumabuki (“Rage”) stokes anticipation as conceited detective Hiroshi Noda, but exits the crime scene too soon. An epilogue suggests he’ll play a key role in the next, Tokyo-set, edition.

Production values are visibly higher than the original, but while the earlier work captured a grungier side of Bangkok that gave the film a haunting, noir feel, the Manhattan backgrounds are generic. Thankfully, the film is not a touristy romp, and locations stay relevant to plot development. The American stunt team delivers robust street action and vehicle chases culminating in a horse-drawn chariot set-piece rife with the film’s typical dumbass humor. Lensing by Du Jie goes for glaringly bright textures and hyperactive camera movements that are exacerbated by frenzied editing.

Film Review: ‘Detective Chinatown 2’

Reviewed at UA KK Mall, Shenzhen. Feb. 21, 2018. Running time: 121 MIN. Original Title: “Tang Ren Jie Tan An 2.”

  • Production: A Warner Bros. (U.S.) Wanda Media Co. (China), Lian Ray Pictures Co., Huaxia Film Distribution Co. release of a Wanda Media Co., China Film Group, Heyi Pictures Co., MI Pictures production. (International sales: Wanda Media Co., Beijing.) Producer: Eric Zhang Zhaowei.
  • Crew: Director-writer: Chen Sicheng. Camera (widescreen, color): Du Jie. Editor: Hongjia Tang. Music: Nathan Wong.
  • With: Wang Baoqiang, Liu Haoran, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Xiao Yang, Michael Pitt, Xiang Yuxian, Yuen Wah, Satoshi Tsumabuki (Mandarin, English dialogue)