‘The Crow’ at 30 – Review

The Crow (1994)
Director: Alex Proyas
Screenwriters: David J. Schow, John Shirley
Starring: Brandon Lee, Rochelle Davis, Ernie Hudson, Michael Wincott, Bai Ling, Sofia Shinas, Michael Massee, David Patrick Kelly, Tony Todd, Jon Polito

It is impossible to separate The Crow from the tragic death of its star Brandon Lee, who died at the age of 28 when he was accidentally shot by a prop gun while on set. The film, that was meant to be the actor’s big break, transformed into a eulogy, a final resting place, memorializing a young man on the cusp of fame, whose life was needlessly cut short. When The Crow was released in the summer of 1994, Lee’s presence seemed to haunt every frame, heightening the film’s themes of grief and sorrow. Its overwhelming sense of loss and loneliness is still palpable all these years later.

In the opening moments of The Crow, we are introduced to a hellscape of crime and poverty, where devils run free and hopelessness festers – the kind of place where darkness itself lives. In a sweeping overhead shot, underscored by a haunting melody by composer Graeme Revell, we careen down through this gothic, supernatural version of Detroit, as a young girl tells us of the legend of a crow that would carry souls to the land of the dead. But sometimes, when someone is killed tragically and their soul cannot rest, the crow can bring that soul back “to put the wrong things right.” That tragic death happened one year ago, on Devil’s Night, when musician Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) was murdered alongside his fiancé, Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas), in their apartment by a gang of violent criminals. After crawling out of his own grave in the pouring rain, Eric returns to his and Shelly’s apartment, where he transforms himself into the painted face of death. Dressed in black and leather, like some rock star Grim Reaper, and guided by a mysterious crow, Eric begins his quest to avenge himself and Shelly, by picking off their murderers one by one.

There is no denying the impact that Brandon Lee’s death had on our perception of The Crow. It fundamentally changed the fabric of the story, creating a metatextual discourse that is, at times, hard to stomach. It is impossible not to recoil every time Lee is shot on screen. That his resurrected body withstands most of these wounds feels like a cruel joke. In his role as Eric, Lee is incandescent and darkly funny, constantly oscillating between gleeful joy at making his murderers pay and cavernous grief as he struggles with the loss of his life and his love. Eric’s body is ravaged by pain and Lee contorts himself into something grotesque, his body straining, muscles taut. Some of this work must be credited, of course, to John Wick director Chad Stahelski, who was Lee’s stunt double and stood in for the actor in several scenes shot after his death. In his black and white face paint, Lee is a disturbing sight, but there is still humanity lurking inside him, which is key to his performance. Some of the actor’s best scenes are the quiet ones, like when he talks with Sergeant Daryl Albrecht (Ernie Hudson) in his apartment about the day he and Shelly died, or whenever he interacts with Sarah, who is like a daughter to him.

It is a truly dynamic performance that is hindered by how there is simply not enough of it. It’s hard to know exactly what The Crow was supposed to be before Lee died. Even though most of his scenes were already filmed, the movie was reworked quite a bit to make up for his sudden loss. As such, there is a real sense of Lee as a specter in his own movie, floating in and out of scenes, never spending enough time with us. It doesn’t have a negative impact on the film, but it does fill you with deep longing for more of something that you know you’ll never get.

The Crow is also inextricably tied to the mid-90s, from its grunge costume design to the punk rock soundtrack and score. While the film is often compared to Tim Burton’s Batman, The Crow is decidedly darker in both tone and style. The Detroit of this world seems stuck in an endless rainy night, production designer Alex McDowell lighting it only in the orange glow of fire and destruction. McDowell’s highly stylized vision does an incredible amount of heavy lifting in terms of The Crow’s world-building and offers some of the most imaginative visuals ever seen in a comic book adaptation.

The Crow is not interested in answering any questions about the morality of revenge or offering any real peace. The Crow has always been an exercise in processing grief from its very inception as a comic series by writer James O’Barr. O’Barr wrote the story after his fiancé was killed by a drunk driver as a way to deal with his loss. This raw emotion remains in the film version, its violence cruel and rage unbridled. The Crow indulges our darkest impulses, offers us catharsis. The film unfortunately falters slightly when it comes to any worldbuilding outside of Eric’s quest to avenge himself and Shelly. Sarah’s relationship with her absentee mother, Darla (Anna Levine), is thinly drawn, as are the motivations of crime boss Top Dollar (Michael Wincott). Wincott plays a formidable villain, but his relationship with Eric isn’t developed enough for their final confrontation to be especially impactful.

The Crow’s success spawned several spin off films, all of which failed to have any type of cultural impact and are generally forgotten. Now, 30 years after the original movie’s release, a remake is scheduled to hit theaters in August 2024, starring Bill Skarsgård as Eric Draven and FKA Twigs as Shelly. Regardless of what this new adaptation will bring, the legacy of the 1994 film as one of the most visually striking and deeply felt comic book movies ever made will remain. It is a film shaped by real-life tragedy, a story that offers an outlet for the deepest hurt imaginable. While Eric may find peace and absolution in the end, The Crow stands as a testament to the endlessness of grief, a reminder that some wounds last forever. Just as importantly, that love lasts forever too.

Score: 20/24

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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