By Nathan Stone
Word Count: 1741
Rating: PG for content relating to the review of an R rated film.
Summary: A review of the 1994 superhero film “The Crow” starring Brandon Lee.
Love Beyond Death: A Movie Review of “The Crow”
Length: 101 minutes
Genre: Comic book/Action
Director: Alex Proyas
Personal Rating: 3.5 stars
One of the biggest goals of a film is to be entertaining. But beyond entertainment, movies are also supposed to be works of art, meaning that they should reflect truth and beauty. Movies like this, such as Casablanca or Ben-Hur, transcend their timeframe and become timeless. This does not mean that such movies must be light and unrealistically cheerful; truth, reality, and life are very often sad, ugly affairs and the timeless movies take this in stride. For instance, Ben-Hur deals with betrayal, slavery, loss, and revenge. It is because of its willingness to look at the ugliness of life—albeit through the lens of a dark fairytale—that I believe The Crow, though flawed, deserves our attention.
The Crow was one of the numerous comic book movies made in the 1990s on the heels of the success of Tim Burton’s Batman and, in many ways, it is the best of the genre which that decade produced, a happy surprise considering some of the potential drawbacks that it faced. For one thing, unlike other comic characters, the Crow was relatively new; James O’Barr began work on it in 1981 as a therapeutic means of dealing with the death of his fiancé who had been killed by a drunk driver, and the first issue of The Crow comic book did not appear on shelves until February 1989. When Hollywood first took interest in the story, producers imagined it as a musical with Michael Jackson, and even when the tone and vision were fixed and the movie began filming, a series of accidents plagued production. But the greatest obstacle to the movie’s success was the tragic on-set shooting of its star, Brandon Lee, through a freak accident that put The Crow in limbo. Lee died before filming was complete. Paramount Studios, the film’s distributor, backed out, and it was unknown whether filming would ever be finished. However, after a six week grieving period, the producers—with the permission of Lee’s family—regathered the cast and crew and completed the film, utilizing digital technology to impose Lee’s features on stand-ins in order to finish the movie for release on May 11, 1994.
The story begins on October 30, called “Devil’s Night” in the city that remains nameless, but is supposed to be Detroit. Amid the 143 arson fires (from which “Devil’s Night” has received its name), Officer Albrecht (Ernie Hudson) investigates the murder of rock guitarist Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) and the brutal gang rape and beating of Eric’s fiancé, Shelly (Sofia Shinas). Despite Albrecht’s assurances to Sarah (Rochelle Davis), a young friend of the couple, Shelly, also dies, and she and Eric are buried together in the cathedral graveyard. A year later, another “Devil’s Night” is falling and the same degenerates who killed Eric and Shelly—T-Bird, (David Patrick Kelly), Tin-Tin (Laurence Mason), Funboy (Michael Massee), and Skank (Angel David)—prepare for another night of explosions, fires, and chaos. At the same time, in the graveyard a crow flies onto Eric’s grave and raps on it, literally awakening Eric from death. Stumbling to his and Shelly’s old apartment in a now condemned building, Eric receives flashes of memory—both of his life with Shelly and of their murders—by touching various objects. He also discovers, through the healing of cuts on his hands caused by glass, that he is invulnerable to harm. Eric then paints his face to resemble a white harlequin mask and, with the crow, begins his mission of vengeance, hunting down, one by one, the four men who killed him and Shelly. Eric’s actions create ripples throughout the city: Officer Albrecht sees him and wonders how a dead man can walk; his superior, the bullish Detective Torres (Marco Rodriguez) begins a hunt for the vigilante; and Top Dollar (Michael Wincott), the undisputed crime lord of the city, and his seer and sister/lover Myca (Bai Ling) become aware of Eric and covet the Crow’s power for themselves, leading the three of them to a final showdown.
For a genre that was not known at the time for Oscar winning performances, the acting is well done throughout the movie. Of the secondary characters, Ernie Hudson comes out the strongest as Officer Albrecht, the proverbial good cop in an evil world. He is the Everyman—courageous, honorable, and just, devoted to doing what is right, regardless of the cost (it is revealed that he was demoted for his continual investigation into Eric and Shelly’s death). Michael Wincott and Bai Ling are both disturbing as Top Dollar and Myca. They are two serpents, entwined together in their nest, waiting to strike—a stark contrast from the other thugs who are loud, hyperactive, and almost crazed in their behavior and speech. They act like typical “tough hoods” and yet there is no question, after seeing and hearing Top Dollar, why he remains the master. But the heart of the movie, as it should be, is Brandon Lee’s Eric Draven. James O’Barr admitted that when he heard of Lee’s casting, he was afraid that the movie would devolve into a kung-fu movie, given Lee’s credits in Showdown in Little Tokyo, but Lee proved himself devoted to the character. We will never know whether The Crow marked the beginning of a great career or its epitome, but Lee’s performance as the Crow is symphonic throughout the film. This would not have been such a feat if the script had made Eric a one note killing machine, a gothic-looking Schwarzenegger who stoically slays his prey before uttering a one-liner. But the script makes Eric more than just a machine; it makes him a man. He comes back from the dead cold, alone, and confused, then discovers his new purpose and sets to work as an outsider, bringing down vengeance. At one point, to Albrecht’s question as to whether he is a ghost, Eric answers, “I don’t know what I am.” For all the power given to him by the Crow, it is painfully clear to see that he would relinquish it all if he and Shelly were allowed to live a normal life together.
For all these strengths, there is something to be said for Gene Siskel’s complaint that The Crow is just another revenge movie in that many of the common tropes of the genre are present merely because they are supposed to be there. Albrecht is an Everyman, but there was no need to make him a police officer except that heroes in these sorts of movies are supposed to have a police ally; and Detective Torres has no real reason to even exist in the movie except to act as Albrecht’s superior and foil, the man who is trying to bring in the “vigilante”, as he calls the Crow. We are not given an explanation as to why Torres is so belligerent towards Albrecht, not even a hint. In the same way, Top Dollar and Myca are not as well developed as they could have been. Top Dollar’s desire for chaos and anarchy rings slightly hollow, as we are not given enough time with his character to really see his motivation (as audiences were able to with Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker). And when Top Dollar reveals that he was ultimately responsible for Shelly’s death through a “tenant relocation program”, it is never fully explained. The characters, strictly speaking, were not needed; the movie could have worked with Eric simply hunting down the men responsible for his and Shelly’s deaths, but all these deficiencies are smoothed over through the fairytale veneer of the movie.
While there were revenge themed movies prior to 1994—with Charles Bronson’s Death Wish series being prominent, and revenge themed characters before Eric Draven—with Punisher taking center stage, The Crow took a different direction by infusing the movie with images of divine justice. The world of the Crow is a literal hell, seen in the nearly constant rain and the fires, two elementals God has used to destroy sinful mankind. Names also demonstrate this fact; the club where T-Bird and his “soldiers” hang out is called The Pit, while the building that houses Top Dollar’s headquarters, used for concerts of anti-music, is simply called Trash. Names fit the environment; the buildings are cramped together and worn, covered with graffiti, scarred by past fires. It is a city deprived of beauty. The effect of this environment on the people is evident. Many, such as Sarah, are worn out and cynical, and even though the city is full of decent people, no one challenges the sway of evil. The bartender of the Pit, where Sarah’s drug addicted mother works, gives Sarah free root beers but will not tell her mom (his employee) to look after her daughter, even though it is no secret that she is an addict and Funboy’s kept woman. At one point he tells Sarah that he would like to do something, but her mom is “technically” off the clock and so is free to make her own decisions.
Even the villains are, in a sense, victims of this trash culture. It is telling that none of the villains have actual names, which stands in direct contrast to Shelly, Sarah, and Albrecht. This lack of names is symbolic of their emptiness. After blowing up an arcade hall, T-Bird and his gang are shown at the Pit, swallowing bullets with shots of whiskey, just for something to do. Top Dollar suffers from this, too; he is a man who has all the drugs, all the money, all the power, and all the sex he could want, but he tells Myca that he wishes he was a little hungry again.
This movie strongly brings to mind St. Augustine’s observation that “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Into this world of evil and despair, the Crow serves as divine retribution against all the evil which has plagued the city for years, a man literally risen from the grave to bring some ray of hope into hell. It’s no coincidence that the tagline for the movie was “Believe in Angels”, since it accurately describes Eric. He is a dark angel to be sure—an angel of death—but one who only seeks evil men.