Despite its English language title, “Conspirators” is actually the third film in Oxide Pang’s “The Detective” franchise, following up on the 2007 original and 2011 sequel. Somewhat of an unlikely series, given that none of its entries have proved massive commercial or critical hits, this latest entry has also been touted as the last, bringing to an end the saga of quirky private detective Tam, played by superstar Aaron Kwok and joined this time by actor Nick Cheung (“The Beast Stalker”). With Pang taking his usual stylised approach, the film treks its way around Southeast Asia, the plot unfolding in Thailand, Malaysia and Guangzhou as Tam tries to get to the bottom of things.
The film kicks off where part 2 left off, with Tam heading to Malaysia to try and solve the mystery of his parents’ murder some thirty years back, an unsolved case which inspired him to become a detective. Tracking down old family friend Chai In (Shaw Brothers veteran Chen Kuan Tai, who starred in the likes of “Crippled Avengers” and “Executioners from Shaolin”) and his daughter (Jiang Yiyan, “The Bullet Vanishes”), Tam receives a few clues and learns that his parents were connected somehow to a drug smuggling cartel. Needing assistance from a local expert, he engages the services of brash private eye Zheng Fong Hei (Nick Cheung), who joins him in working his way through his parents’ former associates while trying to solve his own brother’s issues with drug gangs. It all quickly gets complicated, with several of the suspects turning up dead, and the closer Tam and Zheng get to the truth the more dangerous for them things become.
As it’s a direct continuation of the same story, obviously it’s better to have seen the previous “Detective” entries before approaching “Conspirators”, and while it does work fairly well as a standalone mystery, the film definitely assumes familiarity with Tam and his background. This having been said, his character has changed quite notably between the films in terms of his level of intelligence, having progressed (without explanation) from a bit of an eccentric bumbler in his first outing to the more professional sleuth seen here. This isn’t really a problem, as Tam is one of Aaron Kwok’s more likeable roles of the last few years, an amiable protagonist who is fun to watch going about his business, and the film does win a few points for actually trying to show him trying quite hard to figure things out. Even if this basically just translates to sequences of him in his hotel room thinking very hard, Kwok pulling his best concentration face. Nick Cheung is also on charismatic form, Zheng adding a touch of roguish comic relief and a few action scenes through his martial arts skills, and his relationship with Tam makes for an enjoyable buddy feel that gives things a lift.
The plot itself is not quite as complex as the film’s title suggests, being less a sprawling conspiracy and more of a straightforward journey from one suspect to another, with the basic question as to whether Tam’s parents were drug dealers or not at its heart. Since it’s clear from the start that there’s a shadowy Mr. Big behind it all, the viewer is basically just waiting for this revelation, and though there are a few twists along the way, they’re mostly just distractions. Pang does aim for a general air of mistrust and mystery throughout, never making it too clear who might be telling the truth, and the film does hold the interest and manage a certain tension, if in slightly pedestrian manner. If anything, it’s some of the subplots which are more intriguing than Tam’s central quest, in particular to do with some of the other kids of the victims of the gang, and though Pang largely gives the supporting cast fairly short shift, this does add a bit of spice.
Along with the presence of the two leads, the other main draw here is likely to be Oxide Pang as helmer, who still enjoys a reasonable level of regard despite never quite managing to repeat the success of “The Eye” way back in 2002. His direction here is thankfully solid, aiming for stylish use of colour and dialling back some of his trademark flashy editing, marking the film as one of his better and more consistent efforts of late. The various locations help, and though much of Tam’s travelling is pretty inconsequential, it makes for nice and varied scenery, giving the film some attractive visuals and splashes of local detail. Pang is also fine when it comes to the action, and the film does pack in quite a few fight and chase scenes, generally well-choreographed and occasionally inventive, and without pushing the film from detective mystery to full-on thriller, these ensure that things move along at a decent pace.
While none of this is enough to make “Conspirators” remarkable, it’s nevertheless an entertaining enough watch, and a fitting conclusion to the series. Fans of Aaron Kwok or his likeable private eye will certainly get a fair amount out of its modest mystery, though for Oxide Pang it’s hard not to see it as yet another missed opportunity to reclaim his former glories.
Oxide Pang Chun (director) / Mang-Cheung Ng, Oxide Pang Chun, Thomas Pang (screenplay)
Kuan Tai Chen
Yi Yan Jiang