The Crow

The Crow would be morbid and sepulchral even if Brandon Lee had survived the making of it. Without the ugly novelty of the fact that Lee died on the set, filming a routine gunplay scene that has been accomplished in hundreds of movies without fatal incident, I’m not proud to admit that I wouldn’t have bothered with it. Yet the on-set tragedy feeds into what the film wants to be about. Stylistically akin to Highlander and dozens of tedious direct-to-video movies, thematically identical to such pop standards as Batman, Darkman, Swamp Thing, and all the others that invite us to applaud a loner’s revenge on the scum who took everything away from him, this is every inch a comic-book movie. Hardly a shock, since it’s based on a comic book. And like a lot of superhero comics of the ’90s, The Crow is angry, anguished, saturnine, “complex” — in a word, pretentious. There’s much babble about memory, about transcendence of death. Some may view the movie itself as proof of that: Brandon lives on — here he is, in his final performance. Yet too much of The Crow gets off on death for it to be a celebration of immortality.

Lee plays Eric Draven, a guitarist who dies at the hands of a pack of vicious thugs, who also rape and murder his fiancée. (Lee himself was set to marry his own fiancée; he died two weeks before the scheduled wedding.) A year later, Eric claws his way out of the grave, not much the worse for wear, and hunts down his killers. That’s essentially the movie, though screenwriters David J. Schow and John Shirley, adapting James O’Barr’s cult comic, give Eric some buddies: a sympathetic cop (Ernie Hudson), a tough, skateboarding little girl (Rochelle Davis), and a crow that sometimes serves as Eric’s eyes (and sometimes snacks on his enemies’ eyes). But ultimately Eric is alone in his annihilating fury of grief. Given the number of tormented flashbacks to the fiancée’s agonized death, The Crow seems to aspire to be a meditation on despair in the wake of a violent act. But Rambo had flashbacks, too.

Co-scripter David Schow is the brightest light in the horror-fan magazine Fangoria, for which he writes a column that often focuses on his adventures among the real-life ghouls and vampires at the Hollywood studios. Much of his graveyard wit is detectable in the dialogue of the lead villain, Top Dollar (Michael Wincott). “Die already,” Top Dollar sneers at a man he’s just impaled. Schow, however, isn’t overly interested in the redemptive aspects of the material, the theme of a hero rising from the ashes. Nor does ambiguity detain him. We should sense that Eric’s revenge deforms whatever humanity he has left. But that’s not what the young audience responds to. For all its high-flown visuals and metaphysics, The Crow has a most basic, crude appeal: It sets up repulsive bad guys and prompts us to cheer when Eric slashes them down. It’s Death Wish for Clive Barker fans. The movie’s bitter vengefulness burns away any spiritual core it could ever claim to have.

The Crow‘s twisted roots grow in real agony. James O’Barr wrote and drew the comic, he says, to exorcise the rage and pain that nearly engulfed him after his fiancée was killed. A genuine wounded heart beats under the surface of hip nihilism, and Brandon Lee does his best to locate it. Would his performance be as moving without all the irony attached? I tried to forget, but death is stubbornly integral to the movie. Let’s say that Lee has perfectly fine moments; he gives Eric a human soul, particularly when he’s enjoying the terror he strikes in the hearts of evildoers. But the role is too sketchy for Lee to do anything truly startling with it. We know almost nothing about Eric or his fiancée; if we blink, we miss the reason that she was targeted for a hit. The Crow, I’m afraid, shows only the first small flexing of acting muscle. The real irony is that Lee will never do better than this, and he might well have.

As for the much-touted directorial “style” and “dark vision,” it gave me a headache. Alex Proyas, a veteran of rock videos, can’t get enough of murk, flashy editing, grating industrial music. Proyas is trying to create a specific, alien cityscape that advances, visually, the theme of the story. What rookies like Proyas forget about movies like Batman, Blade Runner, and Brazil is that they take time to invite you in; the camera caresses the design, gives you some bearings. Visually, The Crow is jumpy and off-putting right from the start, and we’ve seen much of it before anyway. (There is one satisfying image: Eric puts a flame to an outline of gasoline, which ignites and forms a fiery crow.) Proyas recruits great, oily character actors like Jon Polito and David Patrick Kelly, but the editing fractures their performances.

Despite our heart-of-stone reputations, we reviewers can be a sentimental lot, and our impulse is to go easy on a posthumous movie like The Crow — to applaud the filmmakers for having completed production (though there’s a necrophilic ickiness about it, no matter how many cast and crew members insist that Lee would have wanted filming to continue), and to attest that the late star’s final appearance is a worthy swan song. In this case, we also recognize the poignance of a visual record of the renewal of a career aborted by fate. Lee had made several other films, mostly chop-socky junk in the tradition of his father, Bruce Lee; The Crow was going to be his break-out role. The ironies create a dark membrane between us and what’s actually on the screen.

Some critics may buy into the movie’s bleak mystique, or it may just be wishful thinking. But I doubt that anyone would be raving about The Crow, or flocking to see it, if its star were still alive to promote it on Letterman. The movie is simply more of the same gritty superhero nonsense that appeals to depressed 15-year-old boys. And it’s not done all that well, either. The feelings of loss and rage just lead to action scenes, which are wash-outs. The movie’s true source of pain, clearly, is what happened to Brandon Lee on the morning of March 31, 1993. That’s what critics are grabbing at to insist that his last film is something special. There was more genuine horror and rage in Robin Williams’ trembling, heartsick performance on TV’s Homicide some months back — he played a tourist whose wife was shot dead right in front of him — than in all of The Crow.

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