The Crying Game at 25 shows how great films can improve with age

In 1992, The Crying Game was the picture you simply had to see. Now it looks better than ever. 

There is no official guidance on the statute of limitations for spoilers. It's best on such occasions to merely do what great films never do: play it safe. Don’t spill the beans about Psycho, even though that wicked thriller is coming up for its 57th birthday. Citizen Kane is even longer in the tooth (76 years old) but it really wouldn’t do to give away the exact nature of Charles Foster Kane’s beloved Rosebud. (I like the guess my daughter made when she was a nipper: “Is it his Nan?”)

So while it’s grand to see the return of Neil Jordan’s thriller The Crying Game on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, all jazzed up in a handsome new Blu-ray edition festooned with extras, there will be no explicit talk here of the exact nature of its surprises. There are people out there who haven’t seen the picture, you see. One of the most remarkable things about watching it again now is how the opening 40 minutes give away very little about what kind of film it will transpire to be in its last hour. (Or rather, the hints are submerged so successfully that they only become apparent after repeat viewings.)

I’m a big fan of movies which are flipped on their heads by intruders or interlopers. An old flame in Something Wild, a surprise witness in The Verdict, an unscrupulous persecutor in The Name of the Rose. The Crying Game is a bit different. It flips itself on its head, changing location, emphasis and direction, with an inner equilibrium maintained by Jordan’s wryly amused tone and the steady-as-you-go lead performance by Stephen Rea. He plays an IRA soldier on the run—think James Mason in Odd Man Out, only with romantic complications which could never have made it to the screen in the 1940s.

The film today looks better than ever. Even the wavering accent of Forest Whitaker (improbably cast as a squaddie from Tottenham) is far less irritating than I remember it being in 1992. In fact, the spell of the movie is so potent that this element only adds to his character’s vulnerability. Time has turned miscasting into an asset.

As for the director, Jordan’s career had suffered a few wobbles following his opening 1980s hat-trick of Angel, The Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa. He’d gone off to America and lost control of two big-budget projects (the supernatural farce High Spirits and the leaden, failed comedy We’re No Angels) while his small-scale return to Ireland, The Miracle, had under-performed. He was thinking of jacking it all in and going back to his first career as a novelist. The Crying Game was his last shot. This old script, which he’d had kicking around since the start of his career, was given an inspired spin when he decided to make an important change to… well, watch the film and see.

I truffled around happily for a few hours in the extras on the new edition. There’s an informative documentary which contains something that is heard only very rarely: a compliment about the Weinstein brothers. Apparently it was Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the US distributors, who saved the film after its rejection by the Cannes Film Festival and its so-so UK opening. They capitalised on what they identified as its must-see potential. Bob, who has always had a canny sense for the workings of exploitation cinema, realised that not only was this a very fine film but that its twists could be used to stoke interest, so that anyone who failed to catch it would feel they were excluded from a social and cultural event. It was FOMO long before that acronym was coined, and the very essence of good marketing.

Thanks to the Weinsteins, The Crying Game became the sort of picture that you simply had to see if you wanted to hold your own at parties. Before long, it was a cultural phenomenon. This eccentric, low-budget thriller, which was funded partly by its producer Stephen Woolley making daily raids on the cash register at the cinema he owned (the incomparable and much-missed Scala in north London), was now competing for Oscars. It got six nominations including Best Picture, and one win, for Jordan, in the Best Original Screenplay category. If you want a measure of its reach, get this: it is mentioned in a 1995 episode of Seinfeld. (“The Doorman”, season six, in case you’re interested.) George Costanza, the greatest sitcom character of all time, refers to a specific sort of crisis as “my own personal Crying Game”. Instant immortality.

Also on the Blu-ray is an alternative ending that Jordan was contractually obliged to shoot at great expense to keep the financiers happy. It’s laughably poor, and vastly inferior to the existing one, as those same financiers realised immediately when they took one look at it. One nice touch, though, is that this ending would have given the film the same last line as Some Like It Hot: “Nobody’s perfect.” No movie is perfect is either. But The Crying Game is better than most.

‘The Crying Game' (BFI) is on Blu-ray and DVD.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.