People once believed that when someone dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead. But sometimes, something so bad happens that a terrible sadness is carried with it and the soul can’t rest. Then sometimes, just sometimes, the crow can bring that soul back to put the wrong things right. - Sarah
In 1971, James O’Barr’s fiancée was struck and killed by a drunk driver. O’Barr, who illustrated combat manuals for the U.S. Marine Corps, began sketching out a comic book about a man avenging the death of his beloved as a means of dealing with his grief. Further inspired by a story about a Detroit couple killed over an engagement ring he further fleshed out his story, though it went unread and unpublished until 1989, when Caliber Comics finally published it. Five years later, 1994’s The Crow was released as a major motion picture, to substantial critical and commercial success.
The Crow is intriguing on many levels beyond its actual content; it’s hard to know where to begin. At first glance, it’s basically a revenge tale tinged with the supernatural, as well as being the first “R” rated superhero movie. Its star, Brandon Lee (son of deceased martial arts superstar Bruce Lee) died violently during filming, cutting short a promising career, and sparking a bit of controversy regarding the film’s release. It’s also a pioneer in terms of modern movie soundtracks, containing one of the best, and most interesting, soundtracks for a movie of its ilk. Numerous sequels and a failed television show followed it, all varying degrees of awful. It (somewhat unfortunately) gave more momentum and inspiration to the fashionably challenged Goth movement. On top of all of that it’s easily one of the best comic book movies ever made; an adult-themed, grim, sad and surprisingly violent saga of death, revenge, love, and redemption.
The Crow tells the story of Eric Draven (Brandon Lee), a rock musician living with his girlfriend, Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas), in a dilapidated apartment in a nameless city that’s clearly modeled on Detroit. Each year, on Devil’s Night, lawless lunatics who do their best to burn more buildings down than they did in the previous year besiege the city. On this particular night, Draven’s apartment is invaded by thugs intent on exacting punishment on he and his wife for standing up for the rights of the tenants of their building. In a turbulent scene that’s shown mostly in flashback (with more and more detail added as the film progresses), Shelly is raped and murdered , followed by Eric being shot and thrown out a window to plummet to his death. One year later Sarah (Rochelle Davis), the world-weary, young girl who they’d befriended is still trying to make sense of their death and her life, which includes a heroin-addicted mother (Anna Levine) who has taken up with, unbeknown to Sarah, one of the very beasts who so savagely ended her friends’ lives. Similarly, Sargent Albrecht (Ernie Hudson), the cop who unsuccessfully tried to solve the case, has been demoted and is still haunted by that night.
All of this takes place in less than 15 minutes, for one of the film’s gifts is the ability to tell a fairly in-depth story while not forfeiting its pacing (aided in part by a surprisingly decent voiceover by Davis, who explains the link between the crow and the risen dead man). From there the story takes off running — Eric is raised from the dead, tortured by the memories of the night of his death and driven with a thirst for vengeance, with supernatural strength, speed and healing. After getting over the initial confusion and anguish of his resurrection, he begins hunting down T-Bird (David Patrick Kelly), Skank (Angel David), Tin Tin (Laurence Mason), and Funboy (Michael Massee), the deranged foursome responsible for his torment, killing them and leaving the image of a crow, in either blood or fire, next to each butchered corpse. However, we learn that this particular pack of deviants works for Top Dollar (a deliciously evil Michael Wincott), the local crime lord/fetishist/maniac who runs the city’s underbelly with the aid of his occult-obsessed half-sister Myca (Bai Ling, being effectively creepy) and his lieutenant Grange (ubiquitous genre favorite Tony Todd). Together, they learn of Draven’s reappearance and set forth to kill him before he kills them.
If it sounds silly, then you clearly haven’t seen it, for The Crow is anything but. Directed by Alex Proyas (I, Robot, Dark City), it’s an exhilarating, sometimes disturbing, melodramatic reflection on death and retribution. Truth be told, death surrounds the movie — from its tragic inspiration, to the trends it set, to the plot , to the cast itself — The Crow almost feels like the Angel of Death made his own movie. Proyas is definitely a flawed director — all of his films, while visually arresting, have glaring issues that detract from their overall merits. At the same time, his unique, fantastical visual style and flair for eye-popping sets and action pieces helped him create a dark, brooding film that you can’t take your eyes off of. Given these two things, and with all due respect to Dark City, one can easily make the case that The Crow is Proyas’s best work. The city is terminally dreary, a dank, ever-raining wasteland of filth and noise and festering corruption. Nothing grows here, the streets seem empty except for criminals and victims. It takes Tim Burton’s drab image of Gotham City and makes it look like Candyland. The sun never shines, not even once, and the buildings loom over the dirty streets like sad, dying giants struggling to stay upright. All of this of course ties into the orgy of destruction that T-Bird and his gang participates in, destroying the citizenry and buildings with equal amounts of drunken, demented glee.
I knew I knew you… but you can’t be you. We put you through the window and there ain’t no comin’ back. This is the really real world, there ain’t no comin’ back. We killed you dead, there ain’t no coming back! - T-Bird
Part of what makes The Crow so alluring is the cast itself. Consisting mostly of non-name, bit-part actors, the cast manages to take what is sometimes clunky dialogue and coaxes real feeling out of it. I must confess, 14 years later watching Lee on screen is still pretty heart wrenching — he’s by no means perfect, but he is an unpolished jewel. Unlike most “dark” superhero movies such as Batman or The Punisher, he doesn’t speak in a raspy growl to show his tough-guy cred. He doesn’t wear a suit that makes him look like a steroid case with a grudge. Instead, his voice is light, almost musical at times, and while he does wrap himself in shiny black latex, his form is lithe and lean, not grotesquely and artificially muscled. When he re-creates himself into this spirit of vengeance, smearing makeup on in homage to a tragedy mask, he transforms completely. For better or for worse, Brandon Lee is The Crow. He owns the role utterly — whether this is because it was his last and most memorable part is up for debate. Regardless, his performance is wonderful. When he first emerges from the ground — fingers torn, burial suit shredded, and screaming in agony — you can’t help but feel a shiver. Although it’s tempting to attribute this to the knowledge that you’re literally seeing a dead man crawl from a grave, to do so would be disingenuous and a disservice to Lee’s talents. In addition to being a skilled martial artist, he had a genuine charisma, and you can truly sense the character’s anguish in the scene. Similarly, when he is forced to re-live that fateful night, his pain is palpable and despairing. Rounding out “the good guys,” Rochelle Davis is quite good as the young Sarah — they don’t bother with the adorable, tragic moppet model of child actors. Instead, she’s gritty and rough-edged, and you can sense her innocence gradually being ground away (in a sad true-life reflection, this was the only film she would do. She apparently had been quite close with Lee, and shortly after her life began to spiral, eventually leading to her arrest on drug-dealing charges). Meanwhile, I’ve always felt that both Ernie Hudson and Anna Levine have been underused, and they’re both great here.
The bad guys are where the real fun is. Michael Wincott, as Top Dollar (although his and his sister’s names are never actually mentioned on-screen), is great fun — a gravel-voiced overlord given to controlled rages. One of the best ideas they had was to avoid the over-the-top crazy villains. Dollar and his gang are crazy, no question about it — Bai Ling’s Myca cuts out a dead woman’s eyeball and uses it to foretell the future, for God’s sake. Yet despite all of their loopiness, none of them has the goofy gimmickry that is prevalent in so many comic book movies (culminating in the dreadful Schumacher Batman movies). Instead, Top Dollar is a slow burn, a truly evil mastermind with a bit of cowboy thrown in to boot. T-Bird’s gang are all lunatics, but only in the sense that they lack any sense of decency or respect for human life. They are wild men, and certainly fun to watch, but there’s nothing sympathetic about them — from the very beginning you know they deserve their respective fates.
My daddy used to say every man’s got a devil. And you can’t rest ‘til you find him… but if it’s any consolation to you, you have put a smile on my face. -Top Dollar
Those fates and the ethics of them present one of the most important aspects of the movie in terms of its place in the pantheon of comic book movies. In many ways, The Crow succeeds where so many other comic book movies have failed. The sense of justice — actually, of vengeance — is what we all wished the Punisher movies could have had. Bloody, violent, and intensely satisfying. It has a soul of darkness that, until recently, the Batman movies always seemed to miss. It is a true adult comic book, and as such the acts and ideas in it — rape, murder, revenge, obsession, and death itself — are able to be fully fleshed out. One of the criticisms that was leveled at it during its initial release was that it was too dark, too depressing; in truth, The Crow was simply ahead of its time. Mature-themed comics have existed for a while, they just never had to access the mainstream. The Crow is about as mature and morally ambiguous as you can get — given his predilection for killing and mayhem, and leaving his signature on his victim’s bodies, Eric Draven is a dead girlfriend away from being essentially a serial killer. Yet you feel nothing but sadness for him, and can’t help but cheer each death — which is, I suppose, what motivated O’Barr in the first place — that searing, seething rage towards those who have taken the one you love from you, and allowing himself to fantasize about what, in another universe, one could do to them.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack — I’ve been listening to it nonstop since I watched the film (in fact, I’m listening to it as I write this). Rediscovering it is a joy; The Crow soundtrack was a phenomenon in and of itself. It’s one of the few soundtrack where every song is actually in the movie — none of this “music inspired by the motion picture” bullshit. Each song is not only in the movie, but fits flawlessly in its respective scene; hell, two of the bands even show up on stage at Top Dollar’s nightclub. During the climactic gunfight, when a baddie goes crashing through a window and plunges, dead, onto the stage as My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult screams “AFTER THE FLEEEEEESHHHH!” from that same stage, well shit, that’s just brilliant cinematic timing right there. It’s a great mix of grunge, techno, with some real lyrical beauties thrown in — I happen to feel that “Burn” is one of The Cure’s most underrated and lovely songs. The unsung hero of the bunch is easily For Love Not Lisa’s “Slip Slide Melting,” a raw screamer from a band that was never heard from again.
No bullshit — if you ask me to name my favorite comic book movies, The Crow easily cracks the top five. It’s sometimes hard to separate the almost preternatural reality that surrounds it, and there’s no denying that its history and the fact that tragedy surrounds and infuses it is part of what makes it so riveting. Yet even if you cast away the devastating events that led to O’Barr’s inspiration and Lee’s untimely and bizarre death, The Crow is still a hard-boiled, captivating spectacle. It’s not 100% faithful to the comic, but it captures its essence successfully. Yet it’s more than simply a comic book movie. The Crow created its own universe, a gruesome, scary place where no one is safe and nothing is sacred, a place where those who have lost become lost themselves. Then, amidst all of that gloom and sadness, it creates an antihero unlike most others, a unique vision of “the avenger, the killer of killers,” as Top Dollar puts it. It’s wildly entertaining, filled with gallows humor and love lost and regained. It’s a film both about death and enveloped in it, and yet somehow, you’ll walk away from it happy.
TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.
The Crow / TK
Pajiba Blockbusters | July 17, 2008 | Comments ()