The mega-successful Chinese franchise about a mismatched detective duo tackling baffling crimes in foreign destinations continues with a wildly uneven caper set in Tokyo. With performances, plotting and visuals amped up to 11 as per usual, this hyperactive combination of Sherlock Holmes-type sleuthing and Three Stooges-style slapstick comedy offers plenty of zany fun, but the central murder-mystery contains so many convoluted diversions, digressions and detours it makes the whole enterprise play like a long stream-of-consciousness sketch with a glaringly hollow core.
A smash hit domestically after opening on Feb. 12 in the Chinese New Year season, “Detective Chinatown 3” has grossed $667 million in the three weeks since. U.S. distributor Warner Bros. Pictures has yet to announce specific release details following the COVID-19 enforced postponement of the film’s planned global rollout on January 24, 2020. Earning its place in history with the highest opening-day gross of any film in a single market ($163 million in China), the third Detective Chinatown film directed and co-written by series creator Chen Sicheng has benefited hugely by waiting a full year to enter local theaters. The most hotly anticipated of all seven major 2021 Chinese New Year releases, “Detective Chinatown 3” delivers exactly the kind of glossy, big-budget escapist entertainment that viewers are especially craving at this time.
Audiences willing to surrender to the film’s eccentric flow and not look too closely should have a good enough time. Those hoping to be enthralled by the same kind of intricately layered mystery that the series built its reputation on may be disappointed. To be blunt: There are not enough plausible suspects, and many crime movie buffs will find it far too easy to quickly identify the killer.
After running around Bangkok and New York in previous entries, brainy young detective Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) and his buffoonish “third cousin, twice removed” Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) are called to the most candy-colored cinematic vision of Tokyo in recent memory. Their client is Masaru Watanabe (Miura Tomokazu), a yakuza boss charged with the murder of Su Chaiwit (Hirayama Motokazu), head honcho of a rival Southeast Asian crime outfit. Despite being the only other person in the room at the time of Su’s death, Watanabe insists he’s innocent and is prepared to pay Qin and Tang one billion yen ($9 million) to prove it.
Studious Qin and socially inept Tang aren’t the only gumshoes on the case. Drifting in and out of the frame are sneering local police hotshot Tanaka (Asano Tadanobu), Thai crime-buster Jack “Rabid Dog” Jaa (“Ong Bak” star Tony Jaa, mugging shamelessly) and garishly attired Japanese freelance investigator Hiroshi Noda (Satoshi Tsumabuki, reprising his entertaining “Detective Chinatown 2” character).
It’s a bright and bouncy affair at first, with a fabulous all-in brawl at Tokyo airport involving male and female flight crew, and a terrific “revolving corpses” routine at a hospital morgue among early highlights of a story that can’t sit still for a minute. The tried-and-true contrast of Qin’s brilliant deductions and Tang’s sledgehammer sleuthing produce plenty of laughs but the story loses focus when Su Chawit’s loyal secretary, Anna Kobayashi (Masami Nagasawa), is kidnapped by young criminal degenerate Akita Murata (Shota Sometani).
During the frantic search for the imperiled woman, Cheng and his co-writers spend more time setting up potential prequel, sequel and spin-off movie threads than dealing with the case at hand. Much of the side-tracking concerns the emergence of a shadowy SPECTRE-like crime cartel known as “Q.” Given the loaded meaning of that particular letter in today’s political and social climate, this moniker could just as easily be a bonus or a burden for future installments, the next of which is clearly flagged to take place in London. When the serious business of unmasking Su Chawit’s killer finally gets back on track in a courtroom-set final act, the story again suffers markedly by taking an unconvincing turn into tearjerker territory.
For all its narrative and structural shortcomings, Cheng’s film is always visually arresting and frequently very funny as it switches tone and tack at the drop of a hat. Filmed entirely and splendidly with Imax cameras by DP Jie Du (“The Wasted Times”), “Chinatown Detective 3” is at its best in sequences such as a mad chase in the middle of a cosplay street parade, and a set piece involving a double-decker bus, mountains of cash and a swarm of frenzied pedestrians in Tokyo’s famous Shibuya Crossing. All that’s missing from Tang’s hilarious fight with a sumo wrestler is the detective saying “nyuk, nyuk” in homage to Curly Howard.
Costume designer Stanley Cheung must have had a ball creating a runway show’s worth of colorful outfits including wonderfully gaudy drag ensembles donned by Wang, Liu, Tsumabuki and Jaa. Likewise, composers Hu Xiaou and Nathan Wang, whose hectic and eclectic score ranges from face-melting guitar solos to moody piano and crashing percussion, sometimes in the same musical phrase.
For a comedy that’s frequently vulgar but never too gross, it’s notable that respect is always shown for Japanese people, customs and culture, unlike some insensitive comic scenes in the previous New York-set chapter. In light of the historically complex and often strained relationship between China and Japan, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest there’s a measure of soft diplomacy tucked beneath the film’s raucous, unruly and goofy exterior.