The film is notable for its sympathetic portrayal of characters from often-reviled subcultures, presented here as complex and likable human beings. Audiences accepted the film as a thriller, but also as an unconventional romance.
The film is notable for containing a dramatic plot twist, which is revealed in the synopsis below.
While Fergus guards Jody, they develop a bond. Jody, in particular, tells him the story about the frog and the scorpion: the scorpion, wishing to cross a stream, asked the frog to let him ride his back over the stream. When the frog asked the scorpion how he could be sure that the scorpion would not sting him, the scorpion replied that if he did sting him, it would mean death by drowning for both of them. The frog complies, carrying the scorpion on its back across the stream. Before they reach the other side, however, the frog feels pain and realizes that the scorpion has stung him. He protests, "Why did you sting me, Mr. Scorpion? For now we both will drown!" The scorpion replies, "I can't help it, it's in my nature."
Jody persuades Fergus to meet his girlfriend, Dil, after he is killed and make sure she is all right. The deadline set by Jody's captors passes and Jody is to be executed. Fergus takes Jody into the woods to carry out the sentence, but cannot bring himself to shoot him, and Jody is instead accidentally run over and killed by British armoured personnel carriers when he attempts to flee across a road. Fergus then hides from his IRA companions in London, where he takes a job as a day labourer with the alias "Jimmy." While in London, Fergus meets Jody's attractive girlfriend, Dil, at a hair saloon. Later they talk in a bar, where the next evening he sees her singing "The Crying Game."
Even then, though, Fergus still suffers from guilt about Jody's death, seeing him in his dreams bowling a cricket ball to him. Nonetheless, he continues to pursue Dil, protecting her from an obsessive suitor and gradually falling in love with her. However, when he later is about to make love to her in her apartment, he discovers that she has a penis and is thus a transwoman, and his initial reaction is of revulsion. Rushing to the bathroom to throw up, he accidentally hits Dil in the face, leaving a bruise, and leaving her on the floor by herself. A few days later Fergus leaves Dil a note, and the two make up. Fergus realizes he is still attracted to Dil, but in a platonic manner.
At around the same time, Jude unexpectedly reappears in Fergus' apartment with a new mission for him: aid in assassinating a well-known official. She also offhandedly mentions that she knows about Fergus and Dil, telling him to "forget about that girl."
Fergus, however, cannot overcome his compassion for Dil, who keeps on wooing him, and shields her from possible retribution by his IRA members by giving her a haircut and male clothes as a disguise. The night before the IRA mission is to be carried out, Dil gets heavily drunk and Fergus has to escort her to her apartment, where Dil asks for him to stay with her for the rest of the night. Fergus complies, then admits to Dil that he had an indirect hand in bringing about her former boyfriend's death. Dil, drunk, appears to not have understood, but in the morning before Fergus wakes up, ties him to the bed, unwittingly preventing him from joining the other IRA members and completing the assassination according to plan.
Dil, holding Fergus at gunpoint, forces Fergus to tell her by the tune of "The Crying Game" that he loves her and will never leave her. When Fergus does so, Dil unties him, saying that even if he's lying, it's still nice to hear his words. Dil then breaks down into tears.
Just then, an exasperated Jude comes into their room with a gun, seeking to kill Fergus for missing the assassination he was to commit. Dil quickly shoots at her, realizing that she was complicit in Jody's death, and that she used her sexuality to trick him. After finishing her off, Dil then points the gun at Fergus, but then lowers her hand, saying that she cannot kill him because Jody will not allow her to. A sympathetic Fergus prevents Dil from shooting herself in the mouth, and tells Dil to hide out in the club for a while. When Dil is gone, he wipes her fingerprints off the gun, and allows himself to be arrested in place of Dil.
The epilogue takes place a few months later. Fergus, in prison, is visited by Dil. Dil, after discussing with Fergus on their plans once he gets out of jail, asks him why he took the fall for her in the first place. Fergus responds, "As a man once said, it's in my nature," and then proceeds to tell Dil the story of the frog and the scorpion he heard from Jody.
However, it was a sleeper hit in the U.S., thanks in part to a memorable advertising campaign which asked audiences not to reveal the film's secret. Jordan also believed the film's success was a result of the film's British/Irish political issues being either lesser-known or completely unknown to American audiences, who thus flocked to the film for what Jordan called "the sexual politics."
It was received to critical acclaim and went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Film Editing, Best Actor in a Leading Role (for Rea), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Davidson) and Best Director. Writer-director Neil Jordan finally won the Oscar for his screenplay. The film went on to success around the world, including a re-release in Britain and Ireland.
Roger Ebert gave the film a four-star rating and described it as one that "involves us deeply in the story, and then it reveals that the story is really about something else altogether.
Gene Siskel, during Siskel and Ebert's annual "Memo to the Academy" program, gave away the ending of the film while giving his review.
The film received 6 Academy Award nominations:
In the episode "To Kill a Mocking Alan" of I'm Alan Partridge, Alan refers to the film, saying it is about "The woman with the old, er, tadger". Also, in the episode "The Doorman" of Seinfeld, George sees his father with his shirt off, and notices that he has breasts. Then he says that he threw up all night: It was "his own personal Crying Game." Additionally, the twist is described in the Father Ted episode "The Passion of St Tibulus", when two characters discuss the movie, mentioning that "they got his Penis out".
In the movie Shallow Hal, a direct reference is made when Hal says "Remember in that movie 'The Crying Game' when the guy finds out that woman he loved is really a guy? It didn't matter, because he loved her anyway".
The most overt reference in the movies was made in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, when the main character (Jim Carrey) deduces that the culprit is really a man posing as a woman, the song "The Crying Game" starts to play. A slightly more obscure reference was made in Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult, when Leslie Nielsen's character starts throwing up after discovering that Anna Nicole Smith's character has male genitalia through her silhouette. More recently, in Rush Hour 3, when Noémie Lenoir's character takes her wig off to reveal a shaved head, Chris Tucker's character assumes she's in fact a man, exclaiming "It's The Crying Games [sic]."