'The Crow' 25th Anniversary of Brandon Lee Back From The Dead With Great Vengeance And Furious Anger
“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.”
When James O’Barr was eighteen years old, his fiancée was killed by a drunk driver. And when something this horrible and catastrophic happens to you and to someone you know and love, life is never the same again. Shortly after he enlisted in the Marines, O’Barr began using his artistic skills to create illustrations for combat manuals. He would then go on to take all of the pain and anger he was feeling about his fiancee’s death and use it to create something else that would channel all of those emotions. That something was his black-and-white, for-mature-readers-only underground comic-book series The Crow.
From the Dallas Observer:
“My life was changed instantly forever because I had, unhealthy or not, wrapped my whole existence around this person,” O’Barr says. “Suddenly, there was nothing in my future but nothingness and I was angry and furious, angry with God, and so I carried that around for a few years until it became almost poisonous and I needed to do something. So I just sat down and began drawing something where I could get justice and peace on paper that I couldn’t get in real life.”
And from Korsgaard’s Commentary:
“I was hurt, frustrated, angry. I wanted justice, I wanted peace, and by putting pen to paper I hoped maybe I’d get it out of my system - it didn’t but that’s another story. It actually took me a decade before I ever got it published with Caliber Comics, but I was doing it for myself. Over the years though, a lot of my fans tell me how it helped them cope or how they read it when they were in a dark place, and it means a lot to me. The Crow was born of my pain and tragedies, if it can help people through theirs, I’m glad to have done so. The heart of The Crow has always been the same: Pain and grief, no matter how bad, are temporary. Love is forever.”
Five years after its publication, Miramax Films bought the rights to the comic-book series and released The Crow as a live-action film, which opened in limited release on May 11, 1994 and in nationwide release on May 13, 1994.
Set in Detroit, Michigan during Devil’s Night and Halloween, The Crow tells the story of Eric Draven and Shelly Webster (Brandon Lee, Sofia Shinas), a young couple in love and engaged to be married on Halloween who, on the night before their wedding, find themselves targeted by a merciless street gang (David Patrick Kelly, Michael Massee, Laurence Mason, Angel David) who break in to their apartment in response to their refusal to sign a petition that would evacuate them both as well as every other tenant in their building. Shelly is stabbed, sexually assaulted, and left to die, and Eric is stabbed and shot out of the window of their apartment. One year after their deaths, a mysterious crow lands on Eric’s gravestone, pecks away at it, and watches as Eric claws his way out from beneath the ground and is brought back to life. Once he realizes what happened to him and Shelly, Eric decides to use his newfound abilities (enhanced strength, speed, agility, the ability to absorb and project the thoughts and feelings of others, and a quick-healing factor that makes him immune to nearly all physical harm) to hunt down the gang members responsible for his death and Shelly’s, and bring all nine circles of Hell to their doorstep before killing every single one of them.
Considering how immensely popular and profitable comic-book movies are these days, it can be easy to forget that as much as X-Men, Spider-Man, and Iron Man deserve plenty of credit for setting all of this in motion in recent years, there were two other films that came before them, and were just as effective and successful in making audiences want to see comic-book characters brought to life onscreen for their viewing pleasure. One of them was Blade, which was released in 1998 and starred Wesley Snipes as the vampire-killing Daywalker. And the other film was The Crow, which opened four years earlier. Granted, both films were rated R (and deservedly so), which meant that you couldn’t really take your family to the local movie theater (not unless your family’s last name is Addams), but give credit were credit is due.
Thanks to the exceptional work by director Alex Proyas, screenwriters David J. Schow and John Shirley, and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, The Crow conveys from beginning to end how much of an absolute hellmouth this version of Detroit is, especially as Devil’s Night is celebrated in all of its fiery and destructive glory, and also how none of it compares to the personal hell experienced by Eric as he is forced to confront the pain of a life and future violently taken away from him while also confronting everyone responsible for inflicting that pain.
Much like Commissioner Gordon over in Gotham City, Officer Albrecht (Ernie Hudson) regularly attempts to do his part in keeping Detroit from being completely devoured by fire and darkness, and the fact that he’s outnumbered and outgunned doesn’t stop him from trying. Hence his willingness to stay by Shelly’s bedside as she lays dying in her hospital room, why he’s remained friendly with Sarah, and why he’s willing to help Eric in his Roaring Rampage of Revenge, while also trying to wrap his head around the unbelievable fact that Eric is somehow alive to even carry out a rampage of any kind.
When you have a parent who is addicted to morphine, hangs out with homicidal gangsters, and shoves a pile of money at you so that you can
go see a Star War go away and leave her alone so that she can continue enjoying her morphine and the company of gangsters, you look for love and affection wherever you can find it. Lucky for Sarah (Rochelle Davis), she found the love and affection she was looking for through her friendship with Eric and Shelly, who were the big brother and sister she never had, only to end up grieving and heartbroken by their deaths. And despite Albrecht stepping up and looking after her, it doesn’t change how angry and lonely Sarah is, which is why she’s truly grateful to see Eric one last time and tell him good-bye like she was never able to before.
The Big Gravelly-Voiced Bad of this particular tale, Top Dollar (Michael Wincott) runs all of the criminal element in Detroit with the help of his seductive and merciless half-sister, Myca (Bai Ling), his deadly right-hand man, Grange (Tony Todd), and T-Bird and his gang (and kudos to David Patrick Kelly, the late Michael Massee, Laurence Mason, Angel David, and also to the late Jon Polito for doing a damn great job of being as detestable as possible and showing why they’re each truly deserving of Eric’s vengeance), and is not only responsible for starting the tradition of burning every building in sight on Devil’s Night every year (a tradition that he wants to become even bigger and more incendiary than ever before), but is the one who gave T-Bird and his cohorts the green light to go after Eric and Shelly in the first place. He is pretty much the exact kind of person that Alfred Pennyworth was describing when he once said that some men just want nothing more than to watch the world burn, because that truly is what Top Dollar wants and craves.
On March 31, 1993, as filming of The Crow neared completion in Wilmington, North Carolina, Brandon Lee was filming the scene in which Eric walks into his apartment and finds Shelly being sexually assaulted by T-Bird and his gang, only to be shot by Funboy (Michael Massee) before he can do anything to try and stop them. From Lee’s Wikipedia page:
In the scene, Lee’s character walks into his apartment and discovers his fiancée being beaten and raped. Actor Michael Massee’s character [Funboy] fires a Smith & Wesson Model 629 .44 Magnum revolver at Lee as he walks into the room. A previous scene using the same gun had called for inert dummy cartridges (with no powder or primer) to be loaded in the revolver for a close-up scene. (For film scenes that utilize a revolver where the bullets are visible from the front and do not require the gun to actually be fired, dummy cartridges provide the realistic appearance of actual rounds.)
Instead of purchasing commercial dummy cartridges, the film’s prop crew created their own by pulling the bullets from live rounds, dumping the powder charge and then reinserting the bullets. However, they unknowingly or unintentionally left the live primer in place at the rear of the cartridge. At some point during filming, the revolver was apparently discharged with one of these improperly deactivated cartridges in the chamber, setting off the primer with enough force to drive the bullet partway into the barrel, where it became stuck (a condition known as a squib load). The prop crew either failed to notice this or failed to recognize the significance of this issue.
In the fatal scene, which called for the revolver to be fired at Lee from a distance of 3.6-4.5 meters (12-15 feet), the dummy cartridges were exchanged with blank rounds, which feature a live powder charge and primer, but no bullet, thus allowing the gun to be fired without the risk of an actual projectile. However, since the bullet from the dummy round was already trapped in the barrel, this caused the .44 Magnum bullet to be fired out of the barrel with virtually the same force as if the gun had been loaded with a live round, and it struck Lee in the abdomen, mortally wounding him. He was rushed to the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he underwent six hours of surgery. Attempts to save him were unsuccessful, and Lee was pronounced dead on March 31, 1993 at 1:03 pm. EST. He was 28 years old. The shooting was ruled an accident due to negligence.
A private funeral as well as a memorial service attended by friends and family were both held for Brandon before he was buried next to his father, actor and martial-arts master, Bruce Lee. The film’s production was completed, thanks to script rewrites as well as the work of stuntperson Chad Stahelski (who would go on to co-direct John Wick with David Leitch, and then direct John Wick: Chapter 2 and John Wick: Chapter 3 on his own), who was used as Brandon Lee’s body double in additional scenes while computer effects were used to replace his own face with that of Brandon’s. And not only did Brandon’s untimely death inspire many a rumor as to how and why it happened, (was it the Lee Family Curse? Was it punishment against the male members of the Lee family from the spirits of their ancestors for sharing their martial-arts knowledge with Americans? Was Brandon murdered by Triad gangsters for refusing to work in films in Hong Kong?) but much like Heath Ledger’s untimely death before the release of The Dark Knight, it increased both awareness and anticipation for the film’s upcoming release. And like Ledger’s groundbreaking performance as The Joker (which several angry fans complained of looking too much like Lee in The Crow when it was first revealed what he actually looked like), Brandon Lee’s performance as Eric Draven impressed many viewers, and made it crystal-clear that if it wasn’t for the fatal accident that claimed his life, he would have achieved greater fame and recognition in Hollywood, and it would have nothing to do with him being the son of Bruce Lee.
To see Eric go from happy and deeply in love with Shelly, to friendly and playful with Sarah, furious and inconsolable over his life and Shelly’s life being torn apart, ruthless and unforgiving when confronting T-Bird and his gang and carrying out the cruel and inventive ways that they each suffer before dying, and doing it all with the pitch-black humor of someone with nothing left to lose, Lee was determined to show that as good as he was at throwing punches and kicks in many an elaborately-choreographed fight sequence, he was capable of so much more as an actor. And with each scene, whether it’s Eric and Albrecht opening up to one another in quiet conversation, or Eric smiling and laughing at the sight of a group of children happily running down the street as they celebrate Halloween, Lee made it so that we felt the weight of Eric’s loss and anger and grief. He clearly had talent that deserved to be seen, and we were only just seeing the tip of that particular iceberg.
And it also didn’t hurt that Brandon Lee was kind of a stone-cold fox. I mean, just look at him.
For those of you interested in viewing Brandon’s final on-camera interview, you can watch it here:
After the release of The Crow (which was dedicated to both Brandon and to his then-fiancée Eliza Hutton, who were engaged to be married a week after production was complete) and its box-office success, it wasn’t at all surprising that Miramax Films wanted to replicate that success, in the form of sequels, even if all those sequels did was make viewers want to go back and watch the original film instead. The first sequel to be released, starring Vincent Perez and Mia Kirshner, was The Crow: City Of Angels, and was about a mechanic brought back to life to avenge his own murder and that of his young son after they are caught witnessing a murder by drug dealers.
Then there was The Crow: Salvation, which starred Eric Mabius and Kirsten Dunst, and centered on a man wrongfully convicted for murdering his girlfriend and is brought back to life to find her actual murderers after being executed in the electric chair.
The Crow: Wicked Prayer starred Edward Furlong, Emmanuelle Chriqui, and David Boreanaz, and was about an ex-con brought back to life after he and his girlfriend are murdered by a group of Satanists.
In 1998, The Crow went from adapted for film to being adapted for television, and The Crow: Stairway To Heaven, starring Mark Dacascos in the role of Eric Draven, was the result. It lasted only one season and like the original film, an unfortunate incident on set resulted in someone’s death, as a special-effects explosion caused stuntperson Marc Akerstream to be struck in the head by flying debris and killed.
For the past couple of years, there has been a steady rotation of directors and actors trying and failing to do a reboot of The Crow. And most recently, Jason Momoa was considered for the lead role, while Corin Hardy was considered to be the director. But much like the film Gambit with Channing Tatum as the card-slinging, Cajun-accented thief with a heart of gold, any and all attempts at making a reboot of The Crow a reality have failed to happen, and depending on who you ask, that news is often greeted with many a sigh of relief.
One of the things that helped make The Crow as memorable as it was and is was its music. And as if Graeme Revell’s haunting score wasn’t wonderful enough to listen to, the film was also accompanied by its soundtrack album of various rock bands, which is still considered to be one of the best movie soundtracks ever comprised. Featuring such songs as “The Badge” by Pantera (originally recorded by Poison Idea), “Time Baby III” by Medicine, “Ghostrider” by Rollins Band (which was originally recorded by Suicide), “Big Empty” by Stone Temple Pilots, “Dead Souls” by Nine Inch Nails (originally recorded by Joy Division), “It Can’t Rain All The Time” by Jane Siberry, and “Burn” by The Cure.
The film also had quite the massive impact on Goth culture. For those who liked their stories dark and bleak but with hints of romance and longing, who loved dressing in all black from head to toe, and wearing flowing dusters and longcoats to match (especially those made of leather), who felt ignored and misunderstood by others, and liked listening to music that was raw and loud and gave no fucks whatsoever, The Crow was for them. And it definitely contributed to the increasing popularity of a brick-and-mortar clothing store by the name of Hot Topic, which provided all of the clothing, jewelry, and other merchandise that one would need and want to express any and all darkness that they would be feeling, look rather stylish while doing so, and throw up both middle fingers to anyone who would have something negative to say about it.
And when you’re fourteen years old and growing up with a family that is mostly comprised of devout Christians, as I did, good luck explaining to your uncle (who is a pastor) and your grandmother (who is Jamaican, does not suffer fools gladly much like most Jamaican women of any age, and is very much a devout Christian, although that never stopped her from watching and enjoying No Country For Old Men and the entire first season of Luther, but that’s neither here nor there) why this poster…
…is hanging on your wall, and why you have (in their words) this demon or demonic-ness hanging up in your room. I don’t ever recall receiving such complaints when I bought a Pulp Fiction poster to hang on my bedroom wall, so clearly a gun-toting Uma Thurman lying on a bed evokes fewer questions and concerns than Brandon Lee-as-Eric Draven seated and looking like he’s about to fuck someone up.
“If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever.”
Twenty-five years after its release and all of the pain that led to its onscreen creation, The Crow has aged much better than most other comic-book films from back in the day, and though it is most remembered and discussed for the tragedy that resulted in the death of its lead actor, it’s certainly not the only reason. Thanks to the film’s cast and crew, and all of the skill, passion, and ingenuity they brought to the table, The Crow continues to be seen as a worthwhile and entertaining film that deserves to be held in high regard.
And to Brandon Lee, whose life was cut short before he could truly live it to the fullest, and before he could continue showing the world more of what he was capable of…
Thank you. And may you continue to rest in peace.
Header Image Source: Miramax/Dimension Films
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