The Crow Review
“One day you are going to lose everything you have. Nothing will prepare you for that day.”
Do you know the difference between a dummy bullet and a blank? I only ask because I didn’t. Apparently both can be made by adapting live ammunition. A dummy bullet is made by removing the lead tip (the actual projectile that is fired), emptying out the explosive powder, detonating the primer firing cap, and then replacing the tip – this bullet now looks exactly like a real bullet, and can be used in films for scenes of loading a gun, or playing with bullets, but it is completely safe because it has neither the explosive charge, nor the detonating element for said charge, to fire out the projectile lead tip. A blank is made by removing the lead tip, emptying out the powder, and replacing it with black powder which creates a more visual flash at the end of the barrel when ignited. The primer firing cap would be left intact so that the powder could be detonated, but, most importantly, the lead tip would not be replaced, so the blank would make an explosive ‘bang’, visually ignite and flash at the end of the barrel, but would not actually fire anything out of the end of the barrel. Whilst these blanks could not be used in scenes where the bullet was shown (as they would not have the lead tip), they were perfect for scenes where gunshots were actually fired.
The trouble is that, on relatively low budget productions where reducing costs is of paramount importance, occasionally safety procedures are overlooked, and improvisation/adaptation can lead to freak accidents. In the case of The Crow, a number of blank and dummy bullets were required, and, for one reason or another, the two were mixed up after being adapted from live ammo. As a result, one of the blanks, which happened to have a small amount of explosive powder in it (as blanks would) was mistaken for a dummy bullet, and the lead tip was therefore replaced. When it was fired, the powder ignited and the lead tip was propelled forward, but at such a low velocity that the lead tip got jammed in the barrel, rather than being fired out of it. For the next shot, where a blank was required (because actual actors were being shot at), a correct blank was used – perfectly safe because it had no lead tip – but the explosive ignited in it had the effect of firing out the lead tip which had previously become lodged in the barrel. This projectile would go on to become lodged in the lead actor’s abdomen, and kill him. The actor was Brandon Lee.
“People once believed that when someone dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead. But sometimes, something so bad happens that a terrible sadness is carried with it and the soul can't rest. Then sometimes, just sometimes, the crow can bring that soul back to put the wrong things right.”
It is impossible to distinguish the production of the movie, The Crow, from the tragic circumstances surrounding it. The source book itself was a hauntingly poetical graphic novel inspired by the death of the writer’s fiancée, at the hands of a drunk driver. It charted the tale of an avenging angel, brought back from the grave, to exact justice upon those who took the life of him and his own fiancée. It would be made into a movie with a star who himself got engaged during the production, and who was also plucked from his life before his time, in a way that mirrored the death of his own father, legendary martial arts icon Bruce Lee, both ripped from this world on the eve of their international stardom.
Following the graphic novel narrative very closely, for the most part, the film introduces us to Eric Draven, crawling out of a grave to find his world torn apart, but with few memories of it. As he remembers what happened to him – and to the girl he loved – he also discovers a newfound power of immortality: his body regenerating instantly from wounds incurred. With the guidance of an ominous bird – a crow – he begins his journey across the dirty, crime-ridden streets of Detroit, to find and punish those responsible for the pain in his life. He must kill them all, and then return to his lost love, to be united in the afterlife.
“Tell them death is coming for them tonight.”
Music-video, TV commercial, and independent film director Alex Proyas – the man who would later craft Dark City (one of the pivotal precursors to The Matrix), as well as the Asimov-based I, Robot – was persuaded to adapt James O’Barr’s dark graphic novel, The Crow, for film back in 1992. It was a make-or-break project for him, an ambitious $50 Million production which only had a $15 Million budget, and which had a completion bond hanging over it to ensure that the movie was finished within budget, and within time. Shooting in freezing temperatures, almost entirely at night, the desired look of the movie required continuous rain on set (ironic considering the movie’s running line “It can’t rain all the time”) the water often turning to ice in seconds, and the cast and crew having to survive these conditions to complete the shoot.
The lead actor chosen was one Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee had collapsed on the set of Enter the Dragon with cerebral edema (essentially, excess water in the brain cavity), and just a few weeks later, suffered the same problems whilst at the house of a work colleague as they were running through the script to his then-currently-shooting film Game of Death. The doctors were unable to revive him. He died at just 32. And Game of Death would be completed in his absence, using what footage they had, together with some body double work.
"Jesus Christ, what are you?!"
"Jesus Christ? Jesus Christ walks into a hotel. He hands the innkeeper three nails and asks... 'can you put me up for the night?'"
Brandon Lee was only eight years old when his father died, at which point his family moved back to the US, and he continued his education. Eventually he would go on to train in acting at the Lee Strasberg school, the same school which had trained the likes of De Niro and Alec Baldwin, all the while maintaining his knowledge of martial arts through instructors who had all been trained by his father. Although initially he embarked on a series of projects which promoted his martial arts skills – from a spin-off of the classic Kung-fu TV series (which had originally been designed as a vehicle for his father, before being replaced by David Carradine) to a couple of b-movie action-vehicles – and although his first lead was in such a production, the enjoyable but largely throwaway Rapid Fire, Brandon Lee yearned to break free of his father’s legacy and step out from under his shadow; he yearned to be known for more than just martial arts action; he wanted to be an actor. Rapid Fire had been a part of a multi-picture deal with 20th Century Fox, but The Crow looked even more likely to be a successful venture in terms of his first step into independent superstardom, itself a 3-picture deal with two sequels (the stories from which would eventually be used for the lacklustre The Crow: City of Angels and its even more appalling follow-up, The Crow: Salvation). Lee was intent on making it a memorable performance, which went beyond just fists and physique.
To this end he researched the part heavily; studying the source graphic novel; learning the guitar for the backstory of his character (his scenes playing it would remain unfilmed); tapping into hidden emotional experiences to gain a better understanding of his character’s pain (most obviously the death of his father, although rumours had it that there were more recent events that would drive him); and collaborating closely with the director in order to perfect the part. Dedicating his mind and body 110% to the production, he was reported to have been the first on set, and one of the last to leave; a true motivational presence during the tough night-based shoot, known for appearing on set, dressed in just black leather trousers (no shirt, no socks – as was required for his character), and packing himself in an ice-bath immediately prior to filming his scenes, just to get in character. Performing the majority of his own stunts, and even improvising a couple of moments during filming, Brandon Lee had as much invested in this production as the director – for the both of them it could either make or break their fledgling careers, and, at just 28, Lee committed everything he had towards making it work.
“Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children.”
Just 8 days before filming was due to wrap, with only a few scenes left to shoot, Lee was killed on-set. The scene was the one where his character (prior to resurrection) was shot in his apartment. His death called a halt to the production, which, understandably, almost never started up again. Eventually, with the blessing of his family, the film was completed, using the footage that had been shot, together with the necessary script-rewrites and reshoots with a body double (and brief use of a voice double) – pivotal sequences having then-limited visual effects done to interpose Lee’s face on the double’s body. Face-casts had been made of Lee to test out different forms of makeup, but the crew tried their best to avoid these because they looked disturbingly real, and I suspect nobody on set wanted to deal with such a realistic spectre of Brandon Lee.
The end result is a highly flawed work, and one which, even if Lee had not died and it had been perfected by the director as he had originally intended, likely would not have escaped its largely b-movie pigeon-holing. It may have been A-grade entertainment, but it would have still been b-movie material. But that’s not what we see here. What we have here is a production which simply defines tragedy – in terms of the writer’s backstory, the narrative itself, and the fate of the star – and which is one of the most gothic movies in existence, so much so that it has spawned something of a cult following. Dark, broody and malevolent, and carrying the veritable atmosphere that you would only expect from real-life tragedy (inimitable, pure, life imitating art), it was gothic comic book adaptation at its best.
“You murdered him?”
“He was already dead. He died a year ago the moment he touched her. They're all dead. They just don't know it yet.”
As stated, though, The Crow was never destined for true greatness – other than, perhaps, in its legacy. It was a pure story of revenge, a transmuted take on the likes of Death Wish, exceptional only in that the only other comic book adaptation of note at the time was Tim Burton’s Batman – itself a gothic revenge-fuelled escapade, but one which was still limited by its 12 rating. The Crow was adults-only, through and through, a much grittier take on the same kind of dark, dingy universe.
I will always wonder what would have happened had they stuck more closely to the original source novel, which went against the grain in the way that it poetically painted characters and events, playing around with a non-linear narrative that was peppered with abstract scenes, startling imagery, and moments of monologue-like prose and literary quotes.
"There is a man... playing a violin... and the strings... are the nerves in his own arm. A twisted soul – the mortar... Despair – the bricks... to build a tempt to sadness. He ties a spent shell in his hair. 'Number One,' he says."
By all accounts, the screenplay adapted from the graphic novel is closer to the end result than it is to the original novel, but that does not mean that key elements – key scenes – were not identical, just that the way the story was told was arguably in a different order, in particular with a different ending.
The movie version of The Crow required two things that James O’Barr’s novel did not provide for: a well-defined uber-villain and an Achilles’ Heel for the protagonist. In the book, he was unstoppable – the story was not about his ‘struggle’; he was more like a force of nature, come to deliver justice. The non-linear nature of the book also did not require a clear-cut villain, instead portraying a series of equally despicable scumbags who would be dispatched in increasingly innovative ways by our (anti-) hero. Proyas’s version would change both these elements, and I can somewhat understand the logic behind this, even if purists may argue that sticking more closely to the original story might have wielded more memorable results. You see, audiences generally need a clear-cut villain, and they also need the hero to have a weakness – otherwise the whole story is something of a foregone conclusion: it’s a bit like watching a Seagal film; you know the lead character can’t be harmed by anybody, so any potential tension is removed right from the off.
“I knew I knew you. But you ain't you. You can't be you. We put you through the window. There ain't no coming back. This is the really real world. We killed you dead, there ain't no coming back!”
As stated, I think this still could have worked had the non-linear style been maintained – the end result would have been infinitely more lyrical and symbolically expressive – but, understandably, the filmmakers wanted to take the safer approach with a project which was already a gamble: an R-rated comic-book superhero tale starring a relatively unknown new actor, made for an independent-movie-sized budget. No, I can understand exactly why they made the changes they made, particularly when they made certain sequences more exciting – from the rooftop chase to evade the police (which actually felt like something reminiscent of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One), through to the climax, which was a scene that deviated entirely from the source novel.
Furthermore, some of the changes were necessary as a result of the loss of the star, Brandon Lee. Although there were only 8 days of shooting left, there was plenty of ADR work and close-ups needed to complete many sequences, as well as almost all of the pre-death scenes which were required for the movie (i.e. the ones before his character is first killed at the beginning of the movie), because Lee had wanted to shoot almost all of the scenes which did not require make-up at the end, all in one go. These scenes, at least in the comic, showed a love and warmth that was not present in the rest of the story, and would have worked well when juxtaposed with it (think about the horrific Gasper Noe drama Irreversible: the movie played backwards, and culminated with the lead characters being shown to be happy and in love, offering up a weighty contrast to the events which were shown before them). The script needed to be rewritten and, whilst many scenes were completed / approximated using the resources available, some of it simply was not possible, and some of it was not desirable given the tragic circumstances.
“Abashed the Devil stood and felt how awful goodness is.”
Scenes where the near-immortal reincarnation of the dead Eric Draven was shot dozens of times by a horde of attackers were heavily cut (most of the uncut footage can be seen in the Special Features, under Extended Scenes), and sequences where Draven was shown making love to his fiancée were similarly removed (glimpses can be seen in the Special Features ‘Deleted Scenes Montage’). It was felt disrespectful to his grieving real-life fiancée Eliza to show either such close-to-the-truth explicit shooting footage, or footage of the late Brandon Lee happy, in love, and making love to another woman on-screen. All of the ‘flashback’ scenes, which arguably make up about half of the source novel, were reduced to just a few near-dialogue-less montages.
In fact, of the 94 minute film left (removing the end credits from the 102 minute list runtime), Brandon himself is hardly seen in the first 15 minutes, up until the point where his character dons the trademark makeup and does his signature swing out of his apartment window. You will notice that very few scenes show Lee’s actual face (there are a couple of shots when he crawls out of his grave and stumbles down the rainy streets), and several of the scenes had to be completed using effects (you can see exactly the same shot of Lee stumbling through the rainy streets used in two different scenes, just seconds apart, just before he reaches his apartment).
"May God grant you the mercy that I cannot."
At the end of the first act, where we see the reincarnated Draven smash his bedroom mirror, they used some clever CG to super-impose Brandon's face onto the broken shards of glass, and, at the end of that scene, where we see the now-painted Draven standing by the window, lightning flashing and lighting up his face in the night, we see the face of Lee has been digitally added to the body double. It’s not glaringly obvious, but it’s also hard to miss.
Key moments from across the movie would be rewritten to reduce the number of effects shots required – and several scenes would be entirely removed because secondary close-up shots could now not be completed. The scenes which would be rewritten involved the chase sequence (from the novel), where Brandon Lee’s Draven was originally supposed to hold his target, the arsonist called T-Bird, at gunpoint, in his own car. The scene would call for T-Bird to brake sharply, and Lee’s character to be thrown headfirst through the windscreen and onto the streets (some of this can be seen on the original storyboards for the ‘Liquor Store robbery’ showcased in the Special Features). T-Bird would then try and run him down and, in one of the greatest stunts planned for the film, Lee himself had elected to jump over the car, somersault over the roof, spin and land. The scene was supposed to continue with Lee’s character having grabbed onto the car, and clawed his way back onto the roof (a glimpse of the car careening down the street with Draven latched onto the hood can been spotted in the Special Features under ‘Deleted Scenes Montage’). Lee was allowed to do this stunt, but only at the end of shooting, lest any injury half production. Of course he never got to film it.
“What the f**k are you supposed to be, man?”
“I’m your passenger. Drive.”
Although most of these workarounds actually worked, there were still several non-action-derived elements missing: largely Brandon Lee’s ADR work would have likely formed some kind of ongoing ‘narration’; reflections to accompany his flashback sequences – hell, dialogue to accompany actual flashback sequences would have been present, rather than just one tiny montage. Sofia Shinas, the singer-actress who played Shelly, Draven’s fated fiancée, was none too keen on returning to do additional flashback sequences – and nobody on the production wanted to offend Brandon Lee’s real-life fiancée – so the planned sequences were largely scrapped. In addition, Lee’s character was supposed to have several key scenes of dialogue with the young girl Sarah, a supporting character who was a friend of Eric and Shelly before they were killed – these obviously could not be completed, and so the young 12 year-old first-time actress who played Sarah was called upon to provide a makeshift ‘narration’ which gave the whole movie a little more direction, and reflection.
So, although this was meant to be Brandon Lee’s breakthrough movie, the end result, whilst remarkably watchable, effective, moody, atmospheric, action-packed and, ultimately, complete, this was not quite Heath Ledger / The Dark Knight. That said, the evidence shows that not Lee not only had the physicality of his father (and, judging by his previous Rapid Fire, the martial arts moves), as well as the electric charisma hinted at by Bruce Lee, but he also had some surprising skills at actually acting. Moments in The Crow are a testament to this fact – as well as the knowledge of how much he committed to the role – and it’s the hope of what could have been which is the true tragedy for his movie-fans.
“Suddenly I heard a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
At the end of the day, watching The Crow is a different experience for all of us – at the very least it will come across as some kind of morbid curio; a production that marked the final nail in the fated (and literal) coffins of both Brandon Lee and the Lee legacy; as well as a further real-life tragedy to have been claimed by the realm of ‘The Crow’, after the writer’s own personal loss, which kick-started this whole seemingly cursed affair. Indeed, that's pretty-much exactly how most of the crew who worked on the production felt: that it was cursed. And who wouldn't? The production had been hit by the Storm of the Century; the lead actor had been fatality shot on set; the film had had to be fudged in post-production; and even the vault where they had housed the completed film cans had been hit by an earthquake and subsequent flood, ruining almost all of the masters. And after all that, their backing studio, Paramount, dropped out, and if it were not for Miramax, which picked up and distributed the movie, the film may have never seen the light of day; and, even when it did, huge protests (criticising the potential safety violations which they thought led to Lee's death) nearly stopped it in its tracks.
Of course, conversely, some of those with no prior knowledge of the background will merely dismiss the film as just another fairly generic, and rough-around-the-edges, comic book adaptation, with a little-known star who they don’t remember, recognise, or know anything about. Hopefully there will be others who have a greater fondness – as I do – and who can see the potential in both the star and the production in general.
"Every bullet has a bed... it just needs to be tucked in."
It’s got some great music, mostly because they insisted upon calling upon artists to create new tracks for the film (including Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails) – the massive firefight is the best-scored sequence, both in terms of the actual band that was playing, and the brooding, pervasive underscore by Graeme Revell that carried on long after the band was stopped. It has also got one hell of an atmospheric setting, Proyas’s vision of an almost post-apocalyptic Detroit making Burton’s Gotham look like a themed amusement-park ride (one of the taglines was: “Darker than the Bat”). It would not be the first time that Proyas’s work would go somewhat unnoticed when compared to a more prominent counterpart (his sophomore vehicle Dark City being usurped by The Matrix, which was almost like a reworking of many of Dark City’s ideas), and arguably all of his skills and professionalism on The Crow, utilising miniatures to great effect, and crafting a coherent story from unfinished scraps of footage, would be largely obscured by the fateful accident on-set. Indeed, it would not be until Frank Miller’s Sin City was realised for the Big Screen over a decade later that we had anything even vaguely comparable to Proyas’s dark Crow-verse.
Then there are the very colourful, innately memorable characters who are brought to life by character actors that you will remember from something or other, even if you don’t know their names: Ernie ‘Ghostbusters’ Hudson plays the stalwart ‘good’ cop role decently enough, and, of the villains, you might remember Michael Massee as Jack’s nemesis Gaines, from the first season of 24 – he plays the drug-addicted Funboy; pyromaniac T-Bird is brought to life by David Patrick Kelly – the guy Arnie ‘had to let go’ in Commando; crooked pawn broker Jon Polito is a regular Coen Brothers collaborator (Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski); Tony ‘Candyman’ Todd, who was also in 24 takes on a bit of a Malcolm X look for a surprisingly restrained ‘lead henchman’ part; and Bai Ling (Crank 2, Red Corner) makes her movie debut as the lead villain’s succubus half-sister – their incestuous relationship adding a twisted dimension to the proceedings that was not present in the source novel, but which suits the mood perfectly. Then, of course, we have the gravel-voiced Michael Wincott (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Strange Days), who is an excellent choice for the aggrandised part of crime boss Top Dollar, a well-dressed, sword-wielding lead villain who has some great lines and just the right attitude to set him apart from the usual genre relics:
“You know, my daddy used to say ‘Every man's got a devil, and you can't rest 'til you find him.’ What happened back there with you and your girlfriend – I cleared that building. Hell, nothing in this town happens without my say-so. So I'm sorry if I spoiled your wedding plans there, friend. But, if it's any consolation to you, you have put a smile on my face”.
Brandon Lee is the real reason to see this movie, however. On the cusp of superstardom, he showed here flashes of everything requisite of a captivating, interesting lead – charisma, passion, inner turmoil, fleeting happiness – and all the presence to guarantee the kind of future in Hollywood that even his kick-ass father could not have hoped for. His lead, Eric Draven, may have not been a fully-rounded, well-realised character, but you could see so much promise in whatever he left behind before his untimely demise. Some would argue that the reason why the numerous sequels to The Crow failed so miserably was just a reflection of the success of The Crow itself being due to its infamy, rather than its actual worth; I would argue that all of the sequels missed Brandon Lee, and that he was the core element which makes The Crow such an engaging beast, and such an indisputable success. You have to remember, this film opened at #1 and stayed there for several weeks; indeed, it went on to gross ten times its initial budget, probably the reason why they keep returning to the franchise to see if they can recapture the magic; unfortunately, without Lee, there really is none, his contribution ti the movie simply incapable of being replicated by another actor, not least because he basically died for it!
Watch The Crow, enjoy the crazy, colourful and positively evil demons; revel in the brutal, relentless and bloody journey of this angel of vengeance; engulf yourself in this dark otherworldly environment, a whole rain-drenched city seemingly made up of all the streets that you’ve encountered in your life which you would never go down at night; and take in every last frame of the late, could-have-been-great Brandon Lee working his never-to-be-seen-before-or-after magic in this hauntingly memorable gothic fantasy –meets– revenge thriller. This resonant, hauntingly powerful tale of The Crow, here brought to life with tragic prescience, comes recommended.
“If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them.”