Superhero Movie Month: "The Crow" Review

Photo Credit: Miramax Films

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Rating: R
Length: 102 minutes
Release Date: May 11, 1994
Directed by: Alex Proyas
Genre: Action / Fantasy

Brandon Lee's first appearance in "The Crow" is beyond dramatic, as he breaks out of his grave to howl in wrath at the hoodlums who murdered him and the love of his life. Playing the rock guitarist Eric Draven, he has returned to life, at least for two hours. Unfortunately, Lee was shot and killed while filming the murder of his own character. However, those critics who look at "The Crow" as mere exploitation of tabloid headlines miss out on a high-quality film. This movie is based on James O'Barr's comic book series, which takes its ultimate inspiration from the death of O'Barr's fiancée, and the film stays faithful to this dark muse all the way through.

Even so, watching Draven's character die in a flashback scene is still difficult to watch. He comes home to the loft where he and his fiancée Shelly (Sofia Shinas) live, only to find the thugs who work for crime magnate Top Dollar (Michael Wincott) raping her. Funboy (Michael Massee) shoots Draven before he can react quickly enough to drop a grocery sack.

The reason why Lee actually died while filming this scene is that the bag held an explosive inside to make it look like a bullet had hit him. Unfortunately, a bullet did make it through, as a dummy ammo tip had stuck in the barrel of the gun during an earlier close-up scene using that same gun. Because the film was in a rush, nobody looked at the barrel before giving Massee the gun. The shot sent the tip into Lee's abdomen; he died within 12 hours.

"The Crow" was supposed to Brandon Lee's first big break. He had studied film and acting in New York City and Boston, but because of the shadow of his famous father, Bruce Lee, he had been pigeonholed into martial arts boilerplates like "Legacy of Rage" and "Showdown in Little Tokyo." The role of Draven was Lee's chance to make a breakthrough. While the director's first choice was Christian Slater, Lee won the role, losing 20 pounds to look like a dead body on the run. Lee channeled the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson as his model here, and Draven truly was the instrument of vengeance, not only breaking skulls but also expressing deep emotion. His performance remains one of the most passionate stories of revenge in modern film. When he returns to life, Draven transforms himself into a harbinger of revenge straight from the comic books, complete with a white-daubed face with black lines that emphasize his mouth and eyes. Bullet wounds heal magically. The crow that follows him through his movie is his connection to this gray space between the living and the dead.

There are moments when "The Crow" gives into the stereotypical desires to splatter the walls with gore and give a half-hearted sermon about clean living. Draven has time to stop and regale a drug-addicted waitress (Anna Thomson) who is neglecting her daughter, but when Draven then uses drug needles to kill a junkie, he loses his moral stature. Draven builds a more credible relationship with the waitress' daughter Sarah (Rochelle Davis) and Albrecht (Ernie Hudson), the police officer sympathetic to Draven's cause.

As Draven leaves a wake of chaos in his path, the cinematography of Dariusz Wolski, best known for his work in "Romeo is Bleeding," splatters a mural of carnage around the theater. This mixes with tracks from The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, the Rollins Band and Stone Temple Pilots, leaving the viewer's ears ringing with aural shrapnel long after leaving the theater. The strength of director Alex Proyas in this film is weaving all of these sensory elements into a total package that makes the viewer almost have to remember to breathe. The scenes in which Draven plays his guitar all across the rooftops in the eternal city stay engraved in the mind. While Lee did pass away during the film, there were only three days of shooting left, so the role is essentially his. Some doubles appear in shadowy scenes, and some scenes enhanced by computers taking his image and placing it in new settings. However, this is not a distraction from the film.

Lee is the master of this film. He finds the center of the horror that Draven has become. There have been other films that have tried to sell the audience the notion that true love is immortal. It is the passion and insight that Lee brings to the role that gets this audience to buy it.