Thursday, September 30, 2010

"The Crow' is great and terrible

"The Crow" is a magnificently unfortunate film. That's my review, in seven words.

"The Crow" has a great premise, fantastic action, and director Alex Proyas' beautiful visual style. It looks pretty much perfect. It's just hard to enjoy this amazing picture if you actually think about it.

A pretty nifty response to a cop saying "Don't move or you're dead!"

Eric Draven is living the good life with his kick-ass girl, Shelly. They have an absurdly pretty downtown penthouse loft. They are such good and happy people that you don't hate them for their fortune; also, the loft is in downtown Detroit. They're wildly in love, and Eric has just proposed (she said "yes!").

Shelly's a bit of an activist, trying to organize a group complaint against their landlord (given the look of their place, this is where you can't suspend disbelief). Devil's Night - Detroit's real-life yearly October 30th crime & arson fest - is when that comes back to bite them. She becomes victim to their home invasion and sexual assault. Eric arrives after they've done a lot of damage. He's stabbed, shot, and thrown out the window. The punks set the place on fire. Shelly slips away after a day and a half in the hospital.

A great scene, in any era of film-making.

So it's not exactly a laugh-a-minute thrill ride out of the gate. Have I mentioned how much I hate sexual assault?… There's only a few story-telling themes that could actually give this doomed pair a future: philosophy, religion, sci-fi/fantasy, and horror. It's sort of an absurd group, don't you think? Well, the story continues…

365 days later ('94 was a leap year), a large black bird lands on Eric's tombstone, tapping the marble with its beak. The poor stiff digs his way out - his wounds gone, he still wears the suit he was buried in. Getting back to the ruins of their home, he realizes he can see and feel memories when he touches people or objects like rings and guns. He also discovers that he's now incredibly fast, agile, and strong.

So he does what any other undead victim would do: he gears up, smearing his face with white makeup, and his eyes and mouth with Shelley's black lipstick. Then he goes to find and wreak bloody revenge on the murderers. Bloody and, when possible, "ironic" revenge.

But he also looks in on the street urchin they used to hang with.

These last sentences are one of the few signs that the film was adapted from a comic book. It's very rewarding that what follows contains fleshed-out people that only feel cartoonish at times. Few movies ever show an avenging figure whose rage is in balance with grief-stricken anguish; to see it in such an action-heavy flick is a shock. Better still, there's effective use of humor, macabre wit, and romance.

Given its trappings, there's a lot of emotional maturity in the story and dialogue. The well-shot action sequences are inventive and impressive. If you hate the way modern action is often shot too closely, brace yourself: you can follow what's happening. It's a kick.

The casting director also deserves an award for wrangling an exceptional bunch: the leader of the thugs is standout serial villain David Patrick Kelley (the guy who banged Coke bottles and shouted "Warriors, come out to play!"). The ever-skilled Ernie Hudson is a cop with a lot of heart, a lot of guts, and a lot of cynicism. Tony Todd continues to show the world that he can be creepy-as-sin. Jon Polito, a character actor who's always a cop or a crook, reaches new depths of funny sleaze-bag. And Michael Wincott brings a lot of humor and quirk to his best of many villainous parts.

Graeme Revell also wrote a good score to accompany the softer moments...

There are still more reasons why this movie is hard to watch: Brandon Lee's incredible performance. Bruce Lee's son was really excited about this, his fifth film role. He did a stellar job. He conveys effective command of the many emotions Eric Draven goes through. For all its comic book origin, there's certainly nothing two-dimensional in the written character.

Lee was young enough that everyone was floored by his understanding of the material and how to play it. The role even required him to get thinner - to try to look "gaunt" - while staying in shape to use martial arts in "The Crow"'s many fight sequences. Brandon pulled off the acting and physical stunt-work brilliantly. This film was a clear sign that Lee's "star" was about to take off.

But a problem with gun safety on the set caused him to get shot while the camera was rolling, and he died. So watching this movie is a depressing experiment in wondering what great work Lee would have done in the years to follow. Or you can also think about the fact that, since Brandon died at 28, he didn't even get as long a life as his dad (who was 32 when he passed). Or you can think about his poor mother, losing the men in her life at such young ages.

Great scene, and a decent Jesus joke thrown in, too...

If you'd like other reasons to feel awful about this great film: the comic book is partly auto-biographical, apart from the supernatural revenge. So presumably some poor comic writer out there (James O'Barr) had someone he loved get assaulted in the worst way possible, and then wrote a deep, touching, violent comic book to cope with his feelings. "Out of the ashes of tragedy...," I know. It's just that this is the Powerball of tragedies.

You can also call my subject "magnificently unfortunate" for shallow reasons : this movie's success has backfired a bit. Sure, the lead's look has been a perennial Halloween favorite. The hit-laden soundtrack sold terribly well (The Cure, Stone Temple Pilots, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult...). Yet there were a painful series of lousy follow-ups brought about by the financial success of "The Crow." Three awful films were released, each about other people who became a painted spirit of undead vengeance. None even get close to the quality, budget, or cast of the original - they didn't play in the same ballpark as their predecessor. Hell, they didn't play in the same hemisphere...

Money and creativity being what they are now in big-budget film, there's even a remake planned for 2011. And there was a TV spinoff called "The Crow: Stairway to Heaven." Seriously, an ongoing series about resurrected vindication from a face-painted figure who just starts righting wrongs? I mean, I wouldn't doubt Native American magic, but can it really keep a guy around for multiple years of a televised series? Yet neither fans of "The Crow" nor lovers of classic rock could prevent 22 episodes from being filmed and aired. Even from a superficial "what a waste of money to make or watch" perspective, this film inspires sadness...

I really do love this movie. Of course I recommend it highly. But I have to be in a very rare mood - or a less rare mood but in very good company - to want to watch it. As I said at the start, "The Crow" is a magnificently unfortunate film.


  1. Good write-up. I'm glad that the "terrible" part wasn't a criticism of the film itself, but rather, a meditation on the circumstances surrounding it. I haven't seen this film since the 1990s (when I saw it about four times), but I'll always be fond of it. Purely from the standpoint of cinema, it's probably okay that we didn't get to see where Lee's career would have gone after this. My guess is that it wouldn't have satisfied us as much as this film.

  2. Thanks! I saw this about as many times, but probably not once after 1994...
    You're right that Lee's career would've needed incredible luck to live up to this movie's expectations... But his filmography is so inferior to his talents, especially his work here.
    Showdown in Little Tokyo? Rapid Fire? Meanwhile, there's Rob Schneider, still breathing, still getting work. It's a crime...


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