A well-crafted trifle, Chen Sicheng's action-comedy Detective Chinatown plays like the first instalment of an envisaged series. There are, in fact, two detectives, mismatched along conventional lines. Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) is a stuttering Sherlock Holmes enthusiast with a photographic memory and the manner of a well-bred schoolboy. His distant cousin Tang Ren (Wang Baoquiang, jabbering like Kevin Hart) is a manic hustler who works for the police but seems to spend most of his time playing mahjong.
Both men are Chinese, but the film is set in Bangkok, where (as we eventually learn) Tang was forced to flee after a scandal in his native village. Just as Qin comes to visit, Tang is caught up in a robbery gone wrong. With both cops and gangsters on their trail, the pair have less than a week to solve a murder and hunt down a missing stash of gold, aided only by Qin's gift for deduction and Tang's willingness to hit his enemies in the crotch.
Filmed in widescreen, Detective Chinatown has a clean, bright, geometrical look which, rather like the 21 Jump Street movies, invites us to compare and contrast the heroes, setting them side by side at every turn. Chen doesn't try to give us anything more than a tourist's view of the setting – canals, tuk-tuks, seedy nightclubs – but he does appear to take the term "local colour" literally, with touches of hot pink and purple sprinkled throughout. A few of the flourishes suggest a pleasure in style for its own sake, notably a brawl in a darkened hospital filmed in a single lateral tracking shot.
In nearly all respects, Chen is a director who prefers clarity to subtlety: plot points are heavily underlined, hammy performances turn the characters into cartoons, and care is put into establishing each new location so that we don't get lost during the chases and fights. The approach mostly pays off, though two and a quarter hours is a bit long for this kind of diversion – and the strained final twist ends the film on an oddly sombre note, despite the promise of more wacky adventures to come.