The Crow (1994)

Director: Alex Proyas

Starring: Brandon Lee, Ernie Hudson, Michael Wincott

On several occasions, I have found myself sitting down to watch a good movie, only to learn of the passing of a high-profile celebrity… one who has touched the hearts of millions… as soon as the movie is over. I was watching my VHS copy of “Friday the 13th” on February 18, 2001, instead of watching that year’s Daytona 500. That was the day of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash. I was at the theater enjoying “The Hangover” on June 25, 2009, when word got out that Michael Jackson had passed. Flash forward to August 11, 2014. The world has lost actor/comedian Robin Williams. Eerily enough, the news broke while I was watching “The Crow,” which just so happens to be a movie surrounded by a dark cloud concerning the on-set death of its lead actor, Brandon Lee. Consider me sufficiently creeped out.

Storywise, “The Crow” is not overly ambitious. It follows Eric Draven (Brandon Lee), who walked in on a gang of thugs raping and murdering his fiancée, Shelley, only to join her in death when he is stabbed, shot, and falls through their apartment window. It seems Eric and Shelley were to have been married the very next day, on Halloween. Precisely one year later, Eric returns from the grave to exact his revenge on those who did him wrong. His soul is connected somehow with a crow, which remains ever watchful and intervenes as needed. It has also granted him invincibility. Eric can get shot full of holes, but his wounds heal themselves almost instantaneously. That’s a skill that can come in handy when your mission involves charging into the proverbial hornet’s nest.

Joining Brandon Lee in this movie are a superb bunch of supporting players. There is Ernie Hudson as the cop who was on the scene the night Eric was murdered, and is one of his few allies in this world. Rochelle Davis is Sarah, the young tomboy who was friends with Eric and Shelley. She’s the movie’s narrator. David Patrick Kelly, known well for playing the weasel, is the arsonist T-Bird, one of the men on Eric’s hit list. Kelly isn’t in the movie for as many scenes as I would have liked him to be. Michael Wincott is half crime boss, half swashbuckling pirate as Top Dollar. He’s so evil that you can’t wait for Eric to kill this guy, and Bai Ling, as Top Dollar’s half-sister (“You don’t see the resemblance?”), demonstrates an intelligence most of the other villains lack, and a sadistic side to match.

Also notable in the cast is Michael Massee as Funboy, albeit for an entirely different reason. On March 31, 1993, Brandon Lee was shot and killed on the set of “The Crow.” The gun that was used, unbeknownst to anyone, had a dummy round lodged in the barrel of the .44 Magnum revolver. This round was dislodged when a blank was loaded and fired, the combination resulting in the same effect as a normal Magnum round. It was Massee who had the misfortune of being the actor to fire the gun at Lee. Though he was not truly at fault in the incident, Massee has been haunted by this ever since. For a time, there was question as to whether or not it would be proper to finish the movie. Alex Proyas, the film’s director, did thankfully make the decision to see it through with the support of Brandon’s surviving family members.

The movie has one glaring weakness, and perhaps appropriately it is in the reveal of Eric’s weakness. Every superhero’s got to have his Kryptonite. I can accept that, as tired a plot device as it is. If you keep your hero playing on God Mode for too long, your audience could lose interest. Except I wasn’t, and the way the villains discover Eric’s weakness (he will only remain invulnerable so long as the crow remains alive/uninjured) is particularly unsatisfying. Nothing happens to help them learn of it at all… They just make a 1,000,000 to 1 guess that happens to be exactly right.

A cult favorite, “The Crow” is not just a great revenge flick that happens to be based on a comic book. It’s also a beautifully rendered noir film that recalls those crime dramas of the 1940’s, as well as owing some to Ridley Scott’s modern sci-fi classic “Blade Runner” (1982). I’d like to pretend that it didn’t also spawn three abysmal sequels, each one worse than the last.  Being a movie made in the early half of the 1990’s, it’s a creature born of the grunge/alternative era of rock music. The soundtrack echoes this, including metal bands Pantera, Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, and the anti-establishment group Rage Against the Machine.

The influence of “The Crow” in popular culture is also evident. Professional wrestler Steve Borden, who since sometime in the late 1980s has performed under the ring name of Sting, abandoned his surfer gimmick in the autumn of 1996, to be replaced with one which was quite clearly based on Brandon Lee’s makeup and attire in this movie. Other than a recent brief detour, it’s a gimmick that Sting has been using ever since.

It’s a shame that Bruce Lee didn’t live to see his son rise to fame with “The Crow,” but it’s even more depressing that Brandon did not either. What’s perhaps the most tragic thing about this is how closely life imitated art. Like his character, Brandon Lee is temporarily resurrected from the grave for one last hurrah. Also, like Eric Draven, Lee was soon to have been married to his fiancée, Eliza Hutton… but alas, it was not to be. As his father was twenty years earlier, Brandon Lee was only just beginning to show the world what he had to offer when circumstance robbed him… and us… of seeing where his path might have led him next. But what a legacy he has left behind!

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