Director: Christophe Gans
Screenplay: Christophe Gans, Thierry Cazals and Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik
Based on the manga by Kazuo Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami
Cast: Mark Dacascos as Yo Hinomura/Crying Freeman, Julie Condra as Emu O'Hara, Tchéky Karyo as Detective Netah, Byron Mann as Koh, Masaya Kato as Ryuji "The Blade" Hanada, Yoko Shimada as Kimie Hanada, Rae Dawn Chong as Detective Forge, Mako as Shido Shimazaki
Synopsis: Emu O'Hara (Julie Condra) awaits her death after accidentally witnessing the work of the Crying Freeman (Mark Dacascos), an assassin for the ancient Chinese society known as the Sons of the Dragons. However love blossoms between the two as the Crying Freeman, real name Yo Hinomura, is a brainwashed pawn regaining his humanity. As a result they find themselves in the midst of Japanese yakuza, corrupt cops and the Sons of the Dragons not reacting well to his insubordination.
After covering the animated adaptation of Kazuo Koike's manga [No. 46 on the blog], it seems fitting to also cover the first version of this story I ever saw, one in a small pocket of film adaptations of manga and anime in the nineties when both were slowly becoming popular in the West. Only a handful actually exist, not just speculation like casting Geena Davis as Sailor Moon, and they vary drastically in quality and in terms of their tone next to the source material, as anyone who has watched the Fist of the North Star adaptation from 1995 with Gary Daniels can attest to. Brian Yuzna, famous for producing and directing cult horror films, is behind a couple of these adaptations that actually saw light. One was the not-so successful take on The Guyver in 1991 [Bonus #3 on the blog] that required a sequel without his involvement to work with more success with the premise. Another is Crying Freeman, a co-production between Japan, the United States and Canada which is strange knowing its source material. Very strange frankly.
If this was the only version you saw as I once was in the camp of, you'd presume the source material was a serious action like many a manga, one very compromised by trying to shove too much narrative into less than two hours. Its co-creator Kazuo Koike however, despite a legendary career that led to Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood, is a storytelling of an extreme kind, something you don't learn of from the live action adaptations unless you've managed to see the infamous Hanzo the Razor trilogy. The anime version, which covers the whole narrative over six episodes, shows how utterly silly and bizarre Koike's story was. The live action film turned out to be an adaptation of what was only the prologue, in spite of trying to tie the narrative up in the end. This itself, especially as it's a serious action film, leads to a strange emotional reaction for me returning to the picture.
Between the live action film and the anime, I have to choose the anime even if it's complete trash. Though it is rough - in tone, its attitude to sex and violence, and sometimes in animation quality - the straight-to-video animated version tells the entire story. Even if it falls off the cliff immediately after the first episode, it's a compelling trajectory downwards, where even its more indefensible moments do not affect how utterly compelling the experience altogether is. For the live action film it's the exact same issue I have with the 1991 live action version of Masahiko Takajo and Tetsuya Saruwatari's manga Riki-Oh, apt as Saruwatari was a student of Koike's. Both live action versions are faithful to their source material, but only cover what is effectively the prologue. Riki-Oh especially has lost its power for me, which would amaze people as it's still an infamous Hong Kong film today were it not for the fact I have read the manga, which goes further on and goes beyond mere insanity to madness that exists in its own logic. Crying Freeman is helped by the fact it takes a different tone to the material, at least in how a viewer intentionally reacts to it. The problems are entirely to do with the narrative being slight, which if you didn't know its source is still anti-climatic by the ending and barely covering a lot in the characters etc. If you know the source even just from the anime, you then learn why as its the prologue that sets up a larger story.
It's not a great film in the long run because of this. It barely covers the main character Yo Hinomura and how he early on in the story takes over the organisation that brainwashed him, Emu at his side and the pair in a narrative that spans multiple plots. Emu's romance to him is weak, with the added issue that Julie Condra is not that great, the character even in Koike's tendencies for problematic gender portrayals still shows her eventually gaining a demonically possessed sword in the anime. The Sons of the Dragons, renamed for the film, aren't talked of greatly as needed for dramatic closure, especially as they still have an unexplained supernatural edge to them, their leader being a hundred plus year old witch and involving an ancient tattoo of a dragon marked on the Crying Freeman with mythological details to it. There are characters like Rae Dawn Chong's Detective Forge who are undercut by her casting and the fact that, in the anime, the Crying Freeman tale is a serialised pulp story which takes place over multiple plots with characters who only appear in one tale than leave. Those that stay don't really appear in the film, a shame especially knowing the existence of Bai Ya Shan in the anime, a giantess of a woman voiced by female professional wrestler Dump Matsumoto who would've been fun to have included in the film if practical.
Where the film is of interest is in its director Christophe Gans. He belongs to the school of directors paying tribute to older genre films and characters, without the sarcasm and irony that seeped into more modern adaptation. He is someone who has always taken his material serious; from his own genre hybrid Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) to his 2006 adaptation of Silent Hill, his fan base wishes he made more films and even the list of characters he wanted to adapt to screen but couldn't (Fantômas, Space Adventure Cobra) reads as someone very different from even a Quentin Tarantino in attitude. He's also someone who officially got into filmmaking through Brian Yuzna. His first work after making shorts is sadly in the disappointing Lovecraft anthology Necronomicon (1993), but Crying Freeman even if it's a very cheesy mid-nineties action film shows where he got his fan base from onwards.If anything it has a personality that's admirable even if the results are a failure, how sincere it takes its source material an admirable attempt. This in particular is important as, if the film was significantly better, there are aspects that were already in the film we got which would've made it great in another context.
That it feels like an international co-production and embraces that fact with various languages spoken; it even does Canada a service of filming there but not just to represent other countries, scenes explicitly set in Vancouver. That I loved the music by Patrick O'Hearn immmensely, of its time but moody and compelling. The style of the film in production design is stylish as was the case even with the worst of the nineties adaptations of pop culture. And Mark Dacascos was a great choice to lead the film, who in a list of actors who should've had bigger careers is that most depressing for me. Someone who is striking onscreen, an accomplished martial artist in films like Drive (1997), yet never having a big break. (Not helped by how some of the films he was in the mid nineties were not released in the US (Crying Freeman), were cut down for release (Drive) or were like The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) where his small role would be barely thought about in the infamy of that film's production history). If anything, whilst the film does not succeed in the slightest, there was at least an admirable attempt at creating an interesting film with the 1995 Crying Freeman adaptation. Whilst the results do not fully come together, like a lot of these early attempts at adapting other media in the nineties, they possess a sense of character that you can even dispute exist equally in the more financially successful ones of a few decades later, films which are more focused but have significantly less personality then their predecessors.