The film sees Dacascos play Yo, a master assassin for a Chinese Triad gang called the Sons of the Dragon. He is called the “Crying Freeman” because whenever he kills a person he sheds a tear. You see Yo is actually a simple potter who was kidnapped and hypnotised into being an assassin. When a young artist Emu (Julie Condra) witnesses one of Yo's assassinations the Sons of the Dragon order he track her down and kill her. But Yo manages to break his spell and the two are forced to go on the run together.
Crying Freeman is a manga that I really got into after watching this film (there's also a pretty sweet six part anime too). It's a much easier adaptation than City Hunter given that it's a serious film and isn't trying to carry over some goofy region-specific humour. Like Fist of the North Star some Americanization has been done to accommodate more roles for Western actors. Most significantly the story has been relocated from Japan to San Francisco for the first half of the film. But again I'm okay with that, it doesn't affect the story too much.
In fact, speaking of the story, the film is a pretty respectful to the original manga with the story close adapting “Portrait of a Killer” the first volume of the manga (bar a couple of character deaths). In some cases, whole sequences have been translated to screen in close detail which is quite surprising considering a lot of other comic book adaptations of the period only had loose connections to their source material. Dacascos is perfectly cast as Yo, essentially you need some who looks innocent when standing still but who looks deadly when fighting and he definitely fits the bill. Apparently the original choice was Jason Scott Lee, who I don't think would have worked as well, he's just a bit too bulky for the role.
The rest of the cast is pretty good as well. You can't really go wrong with Tcheky Karyo as a villain. From Goldeneye to Kiss of the Dragon to Dobermann the man has proven himself as one of the great genre villain. There's something about his slicked back hair, his permanent sneer and gravelly French accent that make him eminently hiss-able. Bizarrely, for this film he seems to be mostly re-dubbed by another actor which sucks a little bit. Bryon Mann also gets a nice little role as Yo's fellow hitman Koh. Mann's another actor who I enjoy seeing when he pops up in DTV fare like Sniper 3 and Belly of the Beast. He's not really leading material but makes a great charismatic supporting actor.
The fight scenes are very stylishly shot. But it's not really until the end of the film that they let loose and really capture the over-the-top madness of the original manga. Director Christophe Gans captures everything in crisp slow motion, really selling the arty-ness of the violence. Drive (again, not the Ryan Gosling one) may have had better choreography but Gans has a slicker eye, making each fight seem like a ballet.
Now all this praise is making Crying Freeman sound like a great film and it is... almost. Unfortunately it's got quite a sluggish pace. Not just in the story pacing but in the scene edits too. This was Gans first feature length film and really shows at times. He's clearly aiming to make something artistic and memorable and not just your run of the mill hitman on the run movie. I applaud that but he really needed to speed up some of the scenes. Also he tends to over-use the slow motion a little too much. Sometimes good slow motion can really give a fight scene an epic feel but when it's overused it makes fights really boring to watch. The final fight scene is worth watching the film to get to but I think it could have played out better with a little less slow mo.
One film I saw recently that makes a very interesting parallel with Crying Freeman is Drive (now I'm talking about the Ryan Gosling flick). Both were about emotionally blank hitmen having to go on the run from their former employers to protect the women they love. Drive worked better because you really got a sense of Carey Mulligan falling for Gosling without the need for words. In Crying Freeman, when Julie Condra falls for Dacascos it happens so suddenly you're sort of left scratching your head as to why she fell in love with him. Considering they married soon after it's a shame that Condra and Dacascos feel so unconvincing as lovers!
All in all, Crying Freeman is a nice little arty action flick that could have done with ten minutes shaved off. Like Fist of the North Star it could have also had a little more budget and tried to match the extreme violence of the manga a little better to make it truly memorable. As an adaptation it's a pretty good representation of the manga and Gans and Dacascos went on to do the superior Brotherhood of the Wolf a few years later.