I am a sucker for superhero movies. I am a sucker for martial arts movies. I am a sucker for dark revenge movies. So when along came The Crow, a dark revenge movie about a supernatural martial artist who takes on the empire of crime that killed both him and his fiancée, it was fairly assured that I would be there ready to fall in love with this film.
Of course, anybody familiar with The Crow knows that the movie had a troubled production history, to put it mildly. The star, Brandon Lee, was killed on set when he was shot point blank with a prop gun that was supposed to have been loaded with blanks. (Essentially, it was, but it had both a blank charge and a bullet cap in the cylinder, I am told, so the end result was essentially the same as having the gun loaded.) Unless you work in movie production worker safety, the details of Lee’s tragic death are probably not as important, in the long run, as the fact that he died not just when his star was rising, but while finishing a movie about a rising star who died before his time. Irony, much?
For me, seeing this movie was a creepy experience, largely because I knew that there were some scenes where the film’s completion insurance paid for digital effects that would splice Lee’s face onto that of a stunt double. This was fairly radical tech for the time, and honestly, I was deeply curious to see how it would look. (I could not tell the difference, really.) But there was something else afoot. I did not know how much of the movie had been filmed when Lee died. Would he really be in any given scene in which I saw him? How much of the movie would star Lee, and how much of it would, in effect, star Lee’s ghost? I held my breath during much of the first watching not because the story held me tightly (even though it did) but because I just wanted the film to look good for Lee’s sake. I didn’t want there to be any parts where your suspension of disbelief was shattered because it became obvious that this was where they inserted secondary imagery of the movie’s deceased star. I didn’t want the movie to feel like a could-have-been, and for the efforts to make this thing through to fall short. I guess to me, it would have felt like Lee’s final work – the work for which he died – would have been for nothing, otherwise. That’s a selfish way to look at it, I suppose. But that’s how I looked at it.
I walked out of the theatre elated. I loved the movie, and I loved its treatment of Lee, and I kept thinking that the producers paid the best tribute they could have to their lost colleague: they let him go out on one heck of a high note.
The Crow, for those of you might not have seen it (and like many of the movies on my Favorite Movies list, it is old enough for a lot of people to know about it without having actually seen it), clearly draws its roots from the kind of revenge/action flick that populated about 93% of all movies made in the 1980s. Hero loses girl to a random act of violence. Hero may or may not also be a victim of the same random violence. Hero goes off-stage briefly, then returns to exact bloody vengeance on the creeps who did him wrong. Authorities get involved in a fruitless effort to stop the hero, proving they are unable to either stop crime or the vigilantes who are battling it. Hero finally fights his way up the criminal food chain to complete his vengeance. Hero may or may not die in the process, depending on how hungry the producers are to make a franchise out of this thing.
And for the most part, The Crow follows this tired formula. Gothy rock star Eric Draven loses his fiancée Shelly to the murderous goons who answer to the city’s crime lord, Top Dollar. Shelly’s violation and murder wasn’t just a random act of barbarity; she committed the crime of trying to fix up her neighborhood when the criminal powers that be have a vested interest in making life as miserable as possible for everyone, so she had to go. Eric arrives on scene during the crime and is gunned down, and the two prettiest people in the whole damned town are slain together. But Draven does not stay dead. His rage and his grief are so strong that he arises as a specter of his former self, accompanied by a supernatural crow that acts as his familiar, to hunt down his killers and to avenge Shelley. As he does, he sweeps clear much of Top Dollar’s criminal empire and shows a few people a way toward their own redemption, as well.
What separates The Crow from so many other avenger films, though, is a sense of atmosphere that is second to none. This isn’t just the wrong side of town we’re setting the story in. The entire city is the wrong side of town, a dystopia so complete that it kind of looks like Gotham City meets Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, except without any costumed crimefighters to clean things up. It is almost never daylight. It is almost always raining. It is a city where you are never out of line-of-sight of some kind of physical, emotional, mental or moral decrepitude. Even the buildings look like they’re up to no good, but the joke’s on them, because the story takes place during Devil’s Night, an annual holiday when bad guys torch random buildings just to watch things burn. (I understand that the tradition has its roots in a real-life version of the same thing, which occurs in Detroit, where entire neighborhoods of abandoned, blighted homes, prove irresistible targets to firebugs.)
The Crow is the kind of setting in which a lot of revenge comic book take place, but this is the first time I had ever seen it so holistically imagined. To me, the setting of The Crow is as compelling as any of its characters. But that does not sell its characters short. Most of them are fairly basic – the good kid who shows that not everyone in the city is corrupt, the honest cop trying to do the right thing by both Draven and the little girl, the mom-turned-junkie-turned-mom again to show that not everybody is lost. What really sells things are the villain, Top Dollar, and Eric Draven himself.
Top Dollar is played by Michael Wincott, a character actor who does a great job of embodying the kind of self-hatred that ought to empower every worthwhile villain, but so rarely does. You get the feeling that Top Dollar hates himself, hates this stupid city, hates the people that get in his way, and hates whatever else he sets eyes on. That he’s got an incestuous thing going on with his creeptastic sister, played by Bai Ling, seals the deal. There is a distant humanity in this guy that you just don’t expect in a movie about supernatural heroes kicking ass and taking names. But it’s there in The Crow, and it really helps to elevate the movie.
But the real star, of course, is the risen Eric Draven. For the most part, he is played with scene-chewing effect by Lee, as a guy who is not consumer by rage as he is its avatar. His cruelty is reserved only for those who wronged him, whether it’s the sleazy pawnbroker who bought Shelley’s ring from her killers, or Top Dollar himself. Lee is no great thespian, but what he does do is throw himself into this role way more than he ever did with his previous work, which was fairly well-done but also fairly standard martial arts cop movies. In The Crow, he looks and feels anguished, knowing that for all of the havoc he wreaks, none of it will bring his Shelley back. We get that sadness, and it lends a much deeper depth to The Crow than audiences had any right to expect. When Draven is mournfully wailing on his guitar between vengeance kicks, there is a point to it. And when he spares people who are more victim than predator, there is a point to that, too.
Draven has the power to heal, but the sad thing is that he is so beholden to his mission of vengeance that he rarely ever gets a chance to use it. And we kind of know that, going along. Draven’s is a revenge trip that can only have one ending, and it’s a shame he cannot stay longer to help a city that so desperately needs it. But the tonic to this is that ultimately, he is reunited with Shelley once again. And for this character, that’s all we really ever wanted. We wanted to see Top Dollar and his minions brought to swift and final justice, yes. But we wanted Eric and Shelly reunited more. That is The Crow’s ultimate payoff, and it works. It is probably also why the various sequels to The Crow never quite felt right. Not only were they trading on a dead man’s efforts, but they never gave us a genuine reason to care that we could imagine outside of the confines of a spectacularly grim and corrupt setting.
Ultimately, it’s that story between Shelley and Eric that I care about, when I watch The Crow. I dig the dark avenger story, and I dig the setting, and that crow is too cool for words. But ultimately, when we see Eric and Shelley at the end of the movie, I felt the darkness lift, as it was supposed to. There are two places revenge movies are meant to go: either into the light of redemption or into the darkness of rage. The movies that take the second route (such as Irreversible, which I will probably never watch, for its infamous rape scene) do so to de-glorify the act of visiting violence upon others to make our own form of justice, for in so doing, we usually create more problems than we solve. The movies that take the first succeed most when they show that the act of vengeance is about more than simply getting even for an unredressed wrong. It is about facing one’s own past, about addressing an even greater crime, or about feelings of helplessness that extend far beyond one’s most recent victimization. Eric Draven has lost his Shelley, and his love was so great for her that he would come from beyond the grave to set things right so he might properly reunite with her. In this fantasy setting, that involves all kinds of grim payback, fisticuffs and gunplay. But in another setting, this could have been a kindler, sweeter story that would have been just as compelling. Because really, who among us hasn’t lost someone they loved, and hurt so badly for it that they would do anything to see them again? That is what The Crow is really about. And more than anything, that is what makes The Crow work.
And that, my friends, is why The Crow is one of my favorite movies.
But what about…Dark City?
Dark City was Alex Proyas’ follow-up to The Crow, and it is an extremely good movie. In fact, I went back and forth more than once wondering which of these two films deserved to be on the list, and which deserved to be a very close also-ran. Ultimately, I chose Dark City for a couple of reasons. But first, if you have not seen this flick, please do. It is a wild mash-up of neo-noir, science fiction and a few other things that makes for an extremely cool experience. If you can, go into it cold. If you can, watch the Director’s Cut, which eliminated the original version’s central failing: an execrable voiceover that basically explains the entire movie – including its central mystery – in the first 30 seconds, mainly because the producers felt the audience would not get the film. It is easily the most vibe-wrecking voiceover since Harrison Ford was forced to ruin Blade Runner. And honestly, it’s a big reason for why I did not include the movie on this list. I hate, hate, hate that voice-over. And I did not even know there was a version of the movie without it until I wrote this review. So for me, for the years since I saw Dark City, I didn’t go back to it as much I might have otherwise because it had this part in it that I absolutely could not stand. But aside from that, this movie also suffers from taking itself a little too seriously. The gloom of The Crow is softened by the reunion of Shelley and Eric, and the notion that at least for some people, some of the time, the sun still shines. In Dark City, even at the end, when we see the sun, we see it for all the wrong reasons – reasons that still drive home the fact that everybody in the story is well and truly screwed. There is a lot of deepness to the film, and while it is a better movie, overall, than The Crow, it is not quite as enjoyable. And most of all, it has not resounded so clearly in my head, and in my writer’s pen when I set to crafting stories of my own. But like I said, this one came down to the wire, and both films are well worth your time. Don’t believe me? Take a gander at the trailer for Dark City. If nothing else, it beats out The Crow for one of my all-time favorite trailers. When I occasionally post those wonky little music videos on mine on this site (like this one, this one and this one), they were all inspired by the Dark City trailer. Enjoy.