Researching my review for CRYING FREEMAN I found out there was this five-years-older adaptation of the same comic. This one’s actually a Hong Kong action movie for real, but it’s not the moody John Woo type that influenced the 1995 version. This is the frenetic wire-fu style that was also big at that time.
Like the Dacascos version it has a guy who gets brainwashed and turned into a super assassin called Freeman (Samuel Hui). He wears an expressionless mask similar to the one Dacascos wore, but he wears it more often. He has the exploding guns, he has the tattoo. The cult is called 800 Dragons instead of Sons of the Dragon, but it’s kinda the same. He does fall for a girl who he’s supposed to kill because she saw his face and painted a picture of him. In this one his partner shoots her in the back and then in the front, but she survives and they stay friends. In this business you gotta learn to forgive people, I think. Like in the later movie the painting gets burned, this time with a flame thrower.
But the tone and structure of this one and most of the details are entirely different. There’s a whole chunk of the movie where he’s just a dorky pre-Freeman orphan living in Russia. He’s in love with fellow orphan (adopted sister?) May (Maggie Cheung). But their father figure (Dean Shek, also producer) knows too much about the 800 Dragons, and they come for him and for his boy.
The middle section turns into an old school kung fu movie. He’s shackled by a long chain to his master, a crazy old guy with a deformed face from magically disguising himself too much and getting stuck. There’s a girl named Pearl (Loletta Lee) who’s a captive there too and she’s obsessed with a bird she called Birdie who she sees as a pet and a metaphor for her potential freedom. But the poor bastard gets fried on the electrical fence. So things aren’t lookin up for Pearl.
There’s a badass training montage where, between sparring and Van Damme style rope-splits, he keeps dipping his fists into a huge pan full of roasting walnuts. At the end of the scene he lifts the entire hot pan by wrapping his arms around it. He puts it down and after a beat his Jackie Chan style mugging shows that it hurt like hell. But then he looks happy again and says, “The pain means I’m still human!” Always looking on the bright side.
When Freeman finally goes out into the world as a killer he runs into Maggie Cheung again (maybe during one of her breakups from Jackie in the POLICE STORY movies). He doesn’t remember her, but starts to fall for her again. It seems like she has to convince herself she’s not crazy, that this really is the same guy she used to live with, as if they haven’t seen each other since they were kids or something. But of course the actors are much too old for that to make sense.
The story and atmosphere are not as strong as the Dacascos version, and much more confusing. (Admittedly the poorly translated subtitles on the disc I rented didn’t help.) But the good news is there’s about 15 times as much action. There’s gun fights. There’s nunchakas. Freeman leapfrogs from a two-story bus to a car to another car and then to the back of his partner’s motorycle. There’s a fight on a subway, one on a train, there’s motorcycle drive-by uzi-ing, car jumps, exploding trucks. There’s a row boat in the movie but they don’t fight on it, I thought that was kinda disappointing. No airplanes either. But they got most of the land vehicles covered.
There’s a fight at a church during a funeral. A leap off the steeple, surrounded by doves. Hand-to-hand in front of a giant, ringing church bell. There’s a three-way martial arts, gun and knife fight inside a shower with a fourth non-combatant.
It’s the kind of movie where people throw knives at guns, wrap people in long swaths of cloth and then spin them like a yoyo, throw their jackets at each other in gun fights. There are many, many, many flips and high leaps and flying kicks and that classic wire work thing where they fly through the air running on somebody’s chest. A guy catches a knife in mid-air while doing a flip and throws it back at the original thrower, who catches it between his feet while he’s flipping and then kicks it back at the guy before landing, and that guy catches it in his mouth and throws it into his braid and tosses it back to the other guy, who catches it between his toes… Freeman’s controller (Nina Li) shoots at people while disguised as a geisha, a nun or an aviatrix. At the climax, there’s alot of this:
I gotta say, the movie is at it’s best when there are people jumping motorcycles in front of giant fucking explosions. But it’s at its second best when it leaves logic behind for long, crazy fight sequences with unexpected twists. In one scene a guy disguised as a hotel employee (Tak Yuen) tries to breathe fire onto Freeman. Next thing you know our guy’s knife fighting with a blade between his toes, then they jump through the window and fight on the roof of a pedestrian bridge, before having a foot chase into a building (while he’s still barefoot). Finally the fake room service guy leaps sideways through the glass door of a vacant office space… which turns out to be the secret headquarters of his controller lady. This was a test, and the attacker was his new assistant Teddy Wong. (I feel like he should be docked pay for breaking the glass. That was totally unnecessary.)
The action is energetic and imaginative, but filmatistically sloppy at times. I like a good slo-mo shot but in this there’s alot of the crude, low frame rate slo-mo where it just looks like that was the best they could do for showing the move clearly on screen. More like video evidence in a trial than an intentional cinematographic technique. Also there’s a bunch of obvious cuts that are supposed to make two moves look continuous, and even a few cases of obnoxiously re-playing an action beat over and over and over again like in Seagal’s notorious KILL SWITCH. I love seeing him jump onto the front of a car and kick through the windshield into the driver’s face, but the fifth or so time you show it I start re-thinking my stance.
Like in the other one a gang boss’s wife seduces a cop as part of her scheme to take over the gang, but in this one it’s at the husband’s funeral, right in front of his coffin. It’s okay, though. She says she’s doing it to stop the guy from searching the coffin. She didn’t get along with her husband, but feels loyal enough to defend his body from desecration. I like these weird character moments, but to be honest by this point I had given up on following who the different characters were and what exactly was going on. At least I knew who the main guy was and he had a badass girl on a motorcycle (with sidecar!) helping him take on the army. And then the inevitable one-on-one with the main bad guy.
As a story this one didn’t work too well for me, but at least I got my money’s worth in crazy action. Not one of my favorites, but definitely enjoyable. The director, Clarence Fok, also did NAKED KILLER. I haven’t seen that one, but I think I might know sort of what it’s about. It could be good.