A kid-friendly detective movie in the spirit of the classics would be great. Inspector Sun tries but sadly never manages to spin the right web.
I love detective stories. Tales of how, as Sara Gran would say, “truth lives in the ether.” Explorations of people and places and how they shape each other. The journey down the streets towards a hidden truth. Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand, is my favorite book. Rian Johnson’s Brick and Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone are movies I think the world of, never mind all-timers like Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. And, of course, the immortal Who Framed Roger Rabbit? from Robert Zemeckis. Any time there’s a new detective film, whether it be an affably bleak comedy or an action-driven character study, it’s a treat.
I wish Inspector Sun and the Curse of the Black Widow, now in theaters, was better than it is. One of the great pleasures of being a film dweeb/cinephile is being able to share what you love with other people. Inspector Sun, on paper, would be a great first detective film for a kid. It has a colorful, unique setting—the secret world of insects, particularly high-fliers traveling from Shanghai to San Francisco in style—a luxurious flying boat in the 1930s. It has a solid lead performance from Ronny Chieng as the titular Inspector—a huntsman spider goofball and a blowhard who’s smarter than his foes give him credit for and lonelier than he realizes. It has a colorful supporting cast, uses its assorted abilities as insects in its action scenes, and isn’t afraid to twist and turn as the best mysteries do.
Unfortunately, Inspector Sun and the Curse of the Black Widow simply is not very good. It’s never outright disastrous, but despite moments of charm, it does not hold together as a mystery, a character study, an adventure, or a fun jaunt into a fantastical world.
The mystery at the heart of Inspector Sun is coherent but devours itself. A mystery starting simple and then ballooning into a sprawl isn’t a bad thing (Like Ross Macdonald’s essential Lew Archer mysteries, it’s all one case.), but the final shape of Inspector Sun‘s initial murder strips it of its character and pathos. Sun and the bug responsible have bad, bad blood. But their confrontation ultimately prioritizes the responsible bug’s vague evil plan (which, naturally, perverts the language of equal rights) over their history. Compare the climax of Roger Rabbit, where Eddie Valiant and Judge Doom’s piano-smashed past heightened the stakes and emphasized the extent of Doom’s depravity.
While Chieng’s performance as Sun is charming, and director Julio Soto Gúrpid and the creative team have some genuine fun with his and the greater ensemble’s insectoid body language, their characters are either archetypal (Sun’s spunky would-be partner Janey, voiced by Emily Kleimo) or incoherent (the ultimate villain’s right hand, who, on top of shaky writing, turns from character to plot device during the climax). Sun himself is frustrating—while he’s the most complete character in the picture, he’s off-balance—tilting between incompetent goof, grieving widower, and spider learning to trust others. It’s shaky, disappointing writing—Sun is likable enough, but he doesn’t feel whole.
And while Inspector Sun‘s costume design is solid and its seaplane setting fun, it does not have a very good handle on how its insect world interacts with the human world that exists alongside it—similar to the case of the 2005 WWII pigeon movie Valiant. On its own, this is not necessarily a dealbreaker. But taken in concert with the shabby character work and the melting of its mystery into a not-terribly-exciting action climax the massive, elaborate, human-style ballroom and human-style tiny plane doors become distracting.
Inspector Sun has some genuine charm here and there, but the vast, often dull space between those moments overwhelms them. Skip it, and if you want to introduce kids to mysteries—to complex plots and seekers who power through burnt-out despair and femme fatales—go with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Inspector Sun and the Curse of the Black Widow is now playing in theaters.