Yau Lung (Sam Hui) and Mou Mei (Maggie Cheung) grew up together in Moscow where they now find themselves embroiled in sinister events orchestrated by Master of Death (Yuen Wah), hideously disfigured leader of the 800 Assassins cult, who is out to retrieve a registry of assassins stolen by a close friend (Dean Shek) of the young couple. Having extracted his vengeance, the master has his minions abduct Yau Lung, who awakens at the secret headquarters somewhere in China with no memory of his past. Bolstered by his friendship with acrobatic impish nymphet Pearl (Loletta Lee), he endures the master’s slapstick training regime that transforms him into a martial arts dynamo. But when rival assassins kill Pearl, Yau Lung is suddenly spirited away by his compatriots, the sexy Chimer (Nina Li Chi) and comically resentful Teddy (Yuen Tak). They outfit Yau Lung with a white mask and distinctive dragon tattoo as he begins his new life as a master assassin, famed for shedding a tear for each life he is forced to take. In the midst of his murderous activities in Hong Kong, Yau Lung is recognised by Mou Mei, now a successful dancer having spent years searching for her missing lover. Yau Lung’s colleagues demand he execute this witness, but his memories of Mou Mei begin to return.
Co-created by manga artist Ryoichi Ikegami and writer Kazuo Koike, the man behind the critically acclaimed Lone Wolf and Cub series of comics and films and the rather more salacious Wounded Man (1986), the popular gekiga Crying Freeman was thrice adapted for the screen. Sandwiched between the 1992 anime and the 1995 live action remake helmed by French filmmaker Christophe Gans starring future Hawaii Five-O villain and, er, Iron Chef judge Mark Dacascos was Dragon from Russia, an unofficial Hong Kong adaptation that was one of the last vehicles for Cantopop idol Sam Hui. Active in film, music and television since the late Sixties, either alongside his siblings Michael Hui and Ricky Hui in such comic outings as Security Unlimited (1981) or as the star of the hugely influential five Aces Go Places films, Sam Hui’s stardom was on the wane by this point. But between this film and Swordsman (1990) he went out on a high.
Missing in action is the overt eroticism prevalent in the manga and anime, although the film is nonetheless sensual and romantic in parts. Where this eclipses its rivals is with the high-octane action choreography handled by co-star Yuen Tak, the stylish manga-in-motion visuals and engaging performances from superstars Sam Hui and Maggie Cheung. There is an appealingly childlike sweetness to the central romance that adds a great deal of charm to the film which is far less po-faced than other adaptations and full of lively, knockabout humour. It is equal parts crime thriller, chop-socky throwback and stylised superhero thriller with a fevered surrealism akin to a John Woo pastiche re-imagined by Dario Argento. Helmed by the gifted Clarence Fok, the set-pieces are outstanding. Cranked up to eleven, the film charges along with tremendous wit and panache and should stand as a textbook example to pretenders like Michael Bay on how to refashion borderline incoherent nonsense into something disarmingly poetic and strange amidst a flurry of beautiful imagery.
Although Yau Lung remains the central protagonist, interestingly the tone of each varied section of the film is actually set by its female characters. Cheung’s heart-rending sincerity dominates the romantic first segment, Loletta Lee’s literally off-the-wall antics govern the frenetic training scenes, while Nina Li Chi - a.k.a. Mrs. Jet Li - brings her slow-burning sensuality to the heavily fetishised third act focused on Yau Lung’s wildly over the top assassinations. As an additional treat, Carrie Ng - one of the stars of Fok’s similarly toned exploitation classic Naked Killer (1992) - steams up the screen in a tight leather dress as a villainous yakuza widow who seduces a hapless cop (Suen Hing) into serving as her personal stooge and shags him during her husband’s funeral! Classy.