Based on the best-selling manga of the same name by Kazio Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami about a deadly assassin that cries every time he kills his target, Crying Freeman (1995) marked the auspicious feature film debut of French filmmaker Christophe Gans. Never given a theatrical release in the United States, it took years to find its way on DVD where it developed a small but dedicated following.
When a young artist by the name of Emu O’Hara (Julie Condra) witnesses the murders of several Japanese Yakuza members at the hands of Yo Hinomura (Mark Dacascos), her life changes forever. Yo is a kind of Manchurian Candidate (1962)-style assassin, a tortured man forever marked with a full-body tattoo and a curse that keeps him working for a Chinese Triad known as “Sons of the Dragon.” They are at war with rival Japanese outfit the Hakushin Society, led by Shido Shimazaki (Mako), in Vancouver.
He enlists the help of Detective Netah (Tcheky Karyo), an Interpol agent, and Detective Forge (Rae Dawn Chong), a local cop, to track down and protect Emu as she witnessed the murder of Shimazaki’s son at the hands of Yo. He surmises that Yo will kill her and that they can apprehend him when he comes for her. The police are given 48 hours to do it or else a full-out gang war will erupt in the city streets. Emu’s life gets even more complicated when she falls in love with Yo, which puts her life in great danger.
I like that Gans shows what motivates both the protagonist and antagonist of the film and so we have a lengthy flashback explaining how Yo became a deadly assassin while also showing the inner workings of the Hakushin Society and Detective Netah’s role in it. This gives the “good guys” and the “bad guys” added dimension that you don’t often see in comic book adaptations or action movies. Gans also shows the corruption that exists in both organizations with Yo and his Japanese counterpart Ryuji (Masaya Kato) being set up and targeted for death once they have outlived their usefulness. This sets up an action-packed finale as Yo protects Emu from numerous assailants in a stylistic love letter to the Hong Kong films of John Woo.
Both Mark Dacascos and Julie Condra are dead ringers for their manga counterparts and Gans wisely compensates for their lack of acting prowess by largely limiting their dialogue, letting their body language do most of the heavy lifting. But then, you’re not watching Crying Freeman for Oscar caliber acting; you want to see plenty of action-oriented mayhem and this film certainly delivers the goods. That being said, the two leads have superb chemistry together, which makes their on-screen romance believable and, apparently, off-screen as they got married after making the film.
From the lethal meet-cute between Yo and Emu to the scene where Yo takes out Shimazaki, Gans choreographs the action sequences in slow motion reminiscent of Woo’s Hong Kong action epics. Gans gets a lot of bang out of his modest $5 million budget scoring major style points with these sequences. I like how he mixes things up with the types of weapons Yo uses, ranging from guns to a bow and arrow to a sword. It demonstrates an impressive versatility on his part while keeping the action sequences distinctive from one another.
Gans does his best to impart, at times, heavy-handed symbolism and artsy-fartsy flourishes into what is basically an action crime film and I admire his attempt to do something different so that it stands out from the usual genre fare. While Crying Freeman may seem heavily indebted to Hong Kong action films, it anticipated the much more satisfying follow-up Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), a fantastic genre mash-up that demonstrated how much Gans had learned in the intervening years.