Few movies in recent cinematic history have had as tragic a production history as The Crow, a supernatural comic-book revenge thriller starring the late Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee. Yes, that Bruce Lee. Brandon was killed on set when he was shot 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, so the end result was essentially the same as having the gun loaded.) Insurance money provided enough cash to digitally superimpose Lee’s face on stunt doubles and therefore complete this unintentionally ironic movie about a rising star whose life was tragically cut short.
The Crow takes place in a phantasmagoric version of Detroit, where Gothy rock star Eric Draven loses his fiancée Shelly Webster to a gang of murderous goons who serve a crime lord named Top Dollar. Shelly’s violation and murder isn’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. Eric arrives on scene during the crime and is gunned down, as well. But Eric’s posthumous rage is 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 avenge Shelly. 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.
The Crow draws its roots from the kind of potboiler that dominated so much of the 1980s and 1990s: hero loses girl to a villainous act of violence, hero may or may not also be a victim of the same violence, hero goes off-stage briefly, hero returns to exact bloody vengeance on the creeps who did him wrong, authorities get involved in a fruitless effort to stop either crime or the vigilantes who are battling it, hero finally fights his way up the criminal food chain to complete his vengeance, hero either does or does not die in the process, depending on how hungry the producers are to produce sequels.
What this movie lacks in narrative brilliance, it makes up with its atmosphere. The story’s setting feels like a city where everywhere is the wrong side of town. It is always nighttime, it is always raining, and some kind of physical, emotional, mental or moral decrepitude is always within sight. 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 criminal holiday when bad guys torch random buildings just to watch things burn.
In a dystopia this complete, Eric is a sympathetic avatar of righteous rage in a city that is long overdue for one. And Top Dollar is his perfect foil—a guy whose depravity is embodied by both his murderous disdain for his minions as well as his creepy affection for his even creepier sister. But even more compelling are the everyday people in this city who are the stakes of Draven and Top Dollar’s personal war. There is Sarah, the streetwise friend of Eric and Shelly who proves that not everyone is corrupt. There is Albrecht, the one decent cop who won’t forget Eric and Shelly’s murder. And there is Darla, Sarah’s drug-addicted mom who tends the local bar and services the local scumbags who frequent it.
When Eric hunts down one of the first gang members on his hit list—a needle-loving degenerate named Funboy who has shacked up with Darla—he dispatches him with an involuntary overdose. Panicked and poisoned, Darla is ready to follow Funboy into the grave until Eric uses his powers to expel the toxins from Darla’s blood and remove her addiction. In that instant, Darla is given an instant of clarity she would otherwise probably not have lived long enough to come to on her own. In the movie’s most memorable line of dialogue, Eric reminds Darla what a special privilege it is to be a mother, and Darla takes it heart. She returns to Sarah and gives everything she’s got left to salvage their relationship. It’ll be tough—Darla has basically forgotten how to be a mom and Sarah has forgotten how to trust her, so both have plenty of reason to give up on each other. But somehow, they both realize they have a rare second chance, and commit to making it work.
The scenes with Darla aren’t exactly high cinema, but they form an arc that lesser movies would have been too preoccupied with carnage to include and reveal the Crow to be an agent of resolution more than revenge. But because Draven’s return is driven by injustice, for him, resolution means killing a whole bunch of very bad people. Draven’s punishments are cruel, swift, and reserved only for those who deserve it, but he knows that with his powers, he could be helping more people like Darla…if only there were more people willing to accept it. That there aren’t is a fresh source of anguish for our hero, who has already suffered so much that he has come back from the dead to make things right. But Eric Draven is an artist, not a killer, and to reunite with his beloved Shelly, he must kill. That wounds him more than any knife or bullet. Eric’s first act of revenge is malicious and driven by rage; afterwards, when we see him wailing mournfully on his electric guitar atop what was once his and Shelly’s apartment, we understand why. For those of us in the audience, watching Eric play is a poignant moment of truth that transcends the screen, an instant where life and art become each other: an elegy for Lee himself performed by his alter ego.
Rest in peace, Brandon.