Bad Detectives (USA, 2021)

Two women at odds with each other find themselves as impromptu detectives investigating the mystery behind the deaths of their grandfathers. That is the premise of Presley Paras’ feature film debut, Bad Detectives – also known as The Year of the Detective – a flashy piece that attempts to bring a new perspective into an old genre. A local art-gallery, a shadowy crime-lord, a crooked politician, a mysterious Guanyin statue, and several bottles of Jack Daniels also thrown into the mix.

After the dubiously accidental deaths of their grandfathers, Ping Liu (Dralla Aierken) and Nic O’Connell (Frey Tingley) are reunited as they are named inheritors of their grandfathers’ joint detective business. Ping and Nic used to be close friends, but something in their past drove them apart. Now, they must put their differences aside in an attempt to find out what really happened to their grandfathers. The two women are aided by Tony Chow (Steven Chan), the assistant to the local assemblyman whom he believes to be corrupt. They suspect the assemblyman is involved in black market art dealing, but proving it is going to be a challenge. In the end nothing turns out to be as it appears, and the investigations lead into a world of corruption, back stabbings, and general confusion for the characters and audience alike.

Two words describe Bad Detectives best: unrealized potential. On paper, the film possesses an immensely intriguing premise that is both fresh and has the potential to advance the genre forward. Certainly, director Presley Paras and his production staff show an impeccable grasp on the stylistic elements of the neo-noir/hard-boiled detective genre, utilizing their experience working on music videos to provide an almost other-worldly atmosphere that capitalizes on the themes of the genre. The moody shadows, the neon-dominated lighting, the rugged offices, the menacing close-ups – everything reminiscent of a lost golden age that this film is trying to revitalize. Unfortunately, that might be the only thing the movie gets right.

Despite the interesting premise, Bad Detectives fails in everything that matters. The plot is an elusive mess that moves too slow for most of the film’s 70-minute runtime, and then too fast towards the end. The resolution was utterly unsatisfying, partly due to pacing, and partly due to the non-existent build-up. For a detective story, there’s very little “detecting” going on in this film. For the most part, clues simply fall into the laps of the two protagonists while they do little except sit in their grandfathers’ office and vaguely reminisce about the past. The messy plot may be a reference to the work of Raymond Chandler, who famously eschewed story cohesion in favor of mood and character, but in Bad Detectives the counterbalance is just not there.

The performances are equally disappointing, and at times, illogical. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say the protagonists lack charisma and chemistry on screen, there’s an inconsistency in their acting which strongly and negatively impacts their characterization in the story. Neither the script nor the acting offers a good enough reason why the two characters should be working together. Moreover, the dialogue is awkward, stifled, and occasionally hard to hear as the mostly unfitting soundtrack plays over it. Sadly, the rest of the cast is utterly forgettable, and the one possibly villainous character in the film could not have been more miscast. Even so, the actors can only do so much with what their given, and in the case of Bad Detectives they certainly didn’t have much to go on.

Bad Detectives feels largely like a film written on a dare from a half-baked prompt. It could have been a lot more than what we got, but unfortunately it was not. The film ends with a hint indicating that this might be the start of a series, though if that is to happen, something must drastically change for the next one to have any chance of success.