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Movie Review

Thriller takes a turn toward the wacky

A crazy but brilliant retired detective is asked to help solve a murder in ''Mad Detective.'' A crazy but brilliant retired detective is asked to help solve a murder in ''Mad Detective.''
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / August 8, 2008

We've seen drug-addicted cops and obsessive-compulsive detectives - what's left? How about full-blown schizophrenia? "Mad Detective," a stylishly funky Hong Kong thriller from cult director Johnnie To ("Triad Election") and co-writer/codirector Wai Ka Fai, asks us to consider whether aural hallucinations and paranoid visions might solve a murder faster than standard departmental procedure.

When we first meet Detective Bun (Lau Ching Wan) of the Kowloon West Crime Unit, he's busily stabbing a dead pig with a knife from the evidence room. Then he zips himself into a suitcase and asks to be thrown downstairs. He emerges triumphant: "The killer is the ice-cream shop owner!"

As with every great crime-solver from Sherlock Holmes on down, ratiocination goes hand in hand with borderline personality disorder. Bun is retired from the force after cutting off his ear and presenting it to his superior officer as a retirement present; five years later, he's visited by Ho (Andy On), a young detective who has memorized the older man's entire career. Can the legend help the kid solve the case of a missing policeman whose gun has been used in several recent robbery-homicides? Does if matter that Bun has stopped taking his meds?

As a mystery, "Mad Detective" isn't much, but it works nicely as a combination character study and bent procedural. The movie's weirdest but most inventive gimmick is the hero's gift for seeing the various personas that make up a human being. The filmmakers visualize this literally: When Bun tails the missing cop's partner, Chi-Wai (Lam Ka Tung), he sees seven other "personalities" following in his quarry's wake, including a fat coward (Lam Suet), a hostile brute (Cheung Siu Fai), and an efficient businesswoman (Lau Kam Ling) who represents the suspect's calculating superego.

This makes for camera shots more crowded than rush-hour on the subway, not to mention an occasionally confusing narrative line. "Mad Detective" is less interested in coherence than in keeping Ho and the audience off-balance, though. Bun has long, emotional conversations with a wife (Kelly Lin) only he can see, and the rational assumption is that she's dead in real life. If only things were that simple.

By the time Ho is insisting his mentor bury him alive - he figures if Bun can intuit where a body is stashed from six feet under, well, so can he - the movie is taking a turn for the silly. Only Lau's title performance keeps it from going down for the count: Bun's not a super-cop but rather an exhausted, violent middle-age man tormented by genuine mental illness. Do his visions make him a better detective or do they merely strain existing gifts through a veil of accidentally helpful psychosis?

The directors aren't really interested in an answer - not when they can send all the characters, actual and imagined, into a hall of mirrors for a shoot-out finale recalling the end of Orson Welles's "The Lady From Shanghai." Like that film, "Mad Detective" is equal parts gonzo inspiration and overwrought indecision. It could be called "The Lunatic From Kowloon."

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/movienation.

Mad Detective

Directed by: Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai

Written by: Wai Ka Fai and Au Kin Yee

Starring: Lau Ching Wan, Andy On, Lam Ka Tung, Kelly Lin

At: Museum of Fine Arts, today and various dates through Aug. 16

Running time: 89 minutes

Unrated (action movie mayhem and assorted scenes of bloodletting)

In Cantonese, with subtitles

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