In 1994, Miramax Pictures released the film adaptation of The Crow. They were not the original studio. Paramount was originally supposed to distribute the film, but they dropped out after star Brandon Lee was killed in an accident on the set.
No one was sure what to expect of the film as it got ready to open nationwide. There were little red flags all over it–based on an obscure comic book, director mainly known for music videos, star dead, delays in release and studio changes. None of these things inspired confidence in the film.
But the film itself turned out much better than feared.
The story has been streamlined from the comic book version, and yes, made more conventional, but this is not a bad thing. As discussed yesterday, the comic had a kind of randomness to it that would not work as well in a film. But for fans of the comic, it does preserve several iconic scenes, some dialogue, and most importantly, the stupid gang names.
The story opens in Hell. Okay, Detroit. But seriously, the burning buildings and red sky make the difference negligible. Plus an onscreen graphic tells us that this is “Devil’s Night.” And there’s some narration about a crow being the messenger between the land of the living and the land of the dead.
The dead being Eric Draven (Lee). Officer Albrecht (played by former Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson) is in Draven’s apartment. Draven is dead and his fiancee Shelly Webster is critically wounded and bleeding out; she won’t survive much longer. Albrecht, a former detective, suspects more than just random violence.
However, the lead detective on the case tells Albrecht to mind his own business, so he does. Fast forward one year.
Young tween Sarah visits the graves of Eric and Shelly. As she turns to leave, a crow lands on Eric’s gravestone.
Alex Proyas knows how compose a visually striking shot. The film looks really good: excellent compositions and tons of atmosphere. The crow taps his beak on the gravestone and pretty soon, Eric Draven bursts up from underground. He rips off his burial suit, giving us all a good look at the fruits of Brandon Lee’s workout regimen.
Draven stumbles back to his apartment, where he puts on his old costume from his rock band days and paints his face like a mime, leading to the big reveal (a scene constructed after Brandon Lee’s death by superimposing his face on a body double).
Meanwhile, the guys responsible for Draven’s death are partying in preparation for setting the city on fire again the next night. The villains are a weakness. Like the comic, they have silly names like T-Bird and Tin-Tin, and they serve the same function as the teenage victims in slasher movies like Friday the 13th–as interchangeable victims of vengeance. The one thing that’s memorable about them: they’re all morons.
They like to get drunk, pump their fists in the air and shout “Fire it up! Fire it up!”
So Eric starts his rampage of justice. First he kills the knife-wielding Tin-Tin. From there, the trail leads to a pawn shop run by the greedy Gideon (Jon Polito). From there, Draven escapes a run-in with Officer Albrecht, then confronts drug addict Fun Boy, who shoots him in the hand.
With every encounter, Eric becomes more comfortable with his supernatural powers. The hole in his hand closes up in short order. Eric uses his powers to purge the morphine from Fun Boy’s girlfriend, Darla (who happens to be Sarah’s mom), then kills Fun Boy.
Meanwhile, the big boss, Top Dollar (played by Michael Wincott) is hearing about Draven’s reign of terror from Gideon. Top and his creepy half-sister Myca (Bai Ling) have threesomes with prostitutes, after which Myca steals their eyes for occult rituals.
Eric kills off the second-to-last gang member, T-Bird, by blowing up his car. And in the process, we get this iconic shot that has been much imitated since.
The final gang member flees to Top Dollar’s club for protection as Top is meeting with the city’s gang leaders to give orders for the annual Devil’s Night arson spree. And there is one of those perfect movie moments where all the elements come together right before the big confrontation. The camera swoops through a miniature city to approach the club as the music builds before we cut inside to pandemonium…
If the opening shot of the film evoked Hell, now we see what Hell truly is. The music, the lighting, the bodies jammed together, combined with the film’s theme of supernatural retribution, all combine to give this moment of lost souls writhing on the dance floor. Meanwhile, upstairs, Eric shows up to claim the life of the final member of the gang that killed him. But to get him, he has to fight his way through a bunch of heavily armed thugs.
It’s a brilliant sequence. Just don’t watch it more than once, or the seams start to show.
The undead, and therefore invulnerable Eric defeats the assembled gang leaders and kills his target, but Top Dollar and Myca escape. His mission finished, Eric escapes from the police (with the help of Officer Albrecht) and heads back to the churchyard where he was buried.
Unfortunately, Top Dollar and Myca have figured out Eric’s one weakness and decide to turn it against him, using Sarah as bait. Eric and Albrecht are seriously wounded, but Eric fights on, leading to a final confrontation atop the church. Top Dollar admits to Eric that he gave the orders that led to Shelly’s death. So Eric hits him with the psychic pain of Shelly’s 30-hour ordeal on the operating table.
Top falls off the roof and dies. Eric’s vengeance is complete.
Overall, the film is good, stylish and action-packed, with a moving performance by Lee. The writing isn’t great (although it’s way better than the comic). There are too many characters too briefly sketched, with hit-and-miss dialogue. The movie managed to thrive in spite of its weaknesses in part because of the excellent visuals and soundtrack, in part because of the visceral appeal of the revenge storyline, in part because of interesting performances by Lee and Wincott and Polito, but also because of the incredible irony of Lee’s death in an accidental shooting while making a movie in which his character is immune to bullets.
As of this writing, the movie can be watched for free on Hulu here (as well as the sequels, but seriously, don’t waste your time on them).