In a tragic parallel to the movie itself, the accidental death of Brandon Lee on the set of 1994’s comic book adaptation of James O’ Barr’s The Crow gave the movie a sense of immortality that went far beyond any of the painfully lame sequels and TV shows that followed in its wake. Much in the same way Heath Ledger’s Joker, or even his own father, the legendary Bruce Lee, was bolstered to the heights of popular culture after the actor’s passing, the character of Eric Draven was granted eternal life as fans mourned for the man he was and the career that could have been.
But – and I understand how callous this may sound – if you were to remove Lee’s horrible accident from the equation, would The Crow actually be any good or has the young actor’s death made it something far more than it actually is. To find out, it’s time once again to visit a hellish Detroit on Devil’s Night and see if this particular Crow can still fly solo.
On October the 30th, the night before Halloween, murdered musician Eric Draven rises from the dead thanks to the powers granted to him by a crow, a creature believed to be an emissary of the dead. A year before, Eric and his beloved fiancee Shelly were one day away from their wedding when a street gang forced themselves into their apartment, raped and beat her and stabbed, shot and threw Draven out of the window. Adapting to his new state of being by Goth-ing up extra hard and vowing revenge, Eric heads out into Devil’s Night – a made up local holiday where arsonists run riot – to track down the gang and claim some long overdue justice with some funky, supernatural powers such as advanced healing and the ability to pluck memories from the heads of other people.
Meanwhile, the four members of the gang in question are still going about their lawless ways completely oblivious that death has painted up his face and is coming for them and as he works his way through T-Bird, Tin Tin, Funboy and Skank in turn, he gets that ever closer to eternal rest.
However, two things make the journey to his goal slightly bumpy and the first is that he keeps running into people who knew him when he was alive such as a young girl he and Shelly befriended named Sarah and busted down ex-detective, sergent Albrecht, who was on the scene when he died. The other – and far more pressing – problem is that T-Bird’s gang was acting under the say-so of the maniacal, occult obsessed crime boss, Top Dollar and Eric’s appearance from beyond the grave has peaked the interest of both him and his lover/half sister Myca.
Aiming to somehow steal Eric’s supernatural powers for themselves, they target Draven’s living loved ones and to save them he has to put his eternal reward aside just one more time in order to get true justice.
When you think of 90’s comic book movies, you inevitably can’t help but be drawn to the noticable failures such as Batman & Robin and Judge Dredd first over quality stuff like the original Blade, but speaking objectively, I honestly think that The Crow is the greatest CBM of the decade. Free to go dark to the point of being virtually pitch black, Alex Proyas presents us with a near-obsidian Detroit that makes Tim Burton’s Gotham City look positively cheery in comparison and the only colour that usually penetrates the gloom is the orange glow from the multiple bouts of arson that’s dotted around the place.
As dark as some superhero movies have strived to get, I’m willing to bet folding money that none have got the balance right quite as well as Proyas – I mean not even Zack Snyder could pull off a triumphant, suiting up hero scene to the pained vocals of The Cure or stage a determined rooftop sprint to the anguished strains of Nine Inch Nails, but the sheer style of the piece carries the thing through with confidence and verve that’s nothing short of exhilarating.
The secret behind how the filmmakers manage to pull this off is down to the universe they create and the tone they establish, with this world feeling like part crime-stuffed cess pool and part theatrical fantasy. The villains, all marvelously played, are legitimately odious, with Michael Wincott’s cynical, slate-like rumble taking top spot as Top Dollar and as Draven goes through them one by one, leaving knife and syringe riddled corpses wherever he goes, there’s no doubt that he’s making the world an ever so slightly better place by forcibly shuffling these scumbags off the mortal coil. But as nasty as the bad guys and their respective comeuppances are, there’s a strong pulse of hope that beats within The Crow and the 90’s model work, sets and special effects have dated nicely into giving things a slightly heightened, unreal feeling that add to the sense that, yes, it can’t rain all the time.
While Wincott, Joe Polito, Bei Ling, Tony Todd and many others excel and populating the movie with more douchebags than an old people’s home, Ernie Hudson brings some much needed levity to proceedings as the dogged Albrecht, but this is rightly Brandon Lee’s show as he stalks the grimy streets and rain slicked rooftops with his features caked in iconic face paint and his Iggy Pop physique wrapped all in black. Unfortunately we’ll never know if he could have successfully built upon this role and used it to springboard into something even bigger, but judging on what we have here, he probably would have. But while his martial prowess and duel gun wielding shows off his hugely capable action chops, it’s the more subtle moments that reveal just how good Lee could have been as he pours his heart out to his former friends. In fact, his adept switching between tender leading man, rage-filled vengence-monster and sinister jester (got to love that tasteless Jesus joke as he faces down Funboy) gives The Crow an edge against any other dark comic book movie who thinks the secret behind making shit gritty is to merely have a hero who works overtime at being a callous butthole.
Shrewdly eschewing tense, personal confrontations over mindless, showy action and a leading man eager to stretch himself over a harsh mindful thug, the movie manages to stand tall even after all these years thanks to still being quite unlike anything else in the genre that has come before or since despite becoming the sole properly for 90’s goths for about a decade. Proyas, for his next movie, somehow went even darker with cult, sci-fi fantasy Dark City, but when it comes to the late leading man himself, we can only theorize what Brandon Lee could have become if it wasn’t for that fateful accident – but thanks to his work, The Crow doesn’t just fly, it soars.