The Crow (Film Review) (No Spoilers)

On drizzly days like today, despite suffering an exuberant bout of ennui (You like the oxymoron there?) I’m still able to muster some mote of excitement for my favourite film of all time, The Crow.

This is the only film I’ve ever seen, which I’ve granted a “Perfect 10/10” rating.  Is it actually a “perfect” film?  No.  Of course not.  There can be no such thing, especially since film taste is so subjective– however, there can be any given person’s “perfect” 10, and this is mine.  As such, it’s only fitting that this be my first ever blog-post film review.

First, a quick synopsis: It’s your typical, “Boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy and girl get murdered the night before their wedding so boy comes back to avenge his and his lover’s murder in an unholy trail of blood and bullets,” kind of story.  The film stars Brandon Lee (son of the famous film star and martial artist Bruce Lee) as Eric Draven (the dead boyfriend), and features Sofia Shinas as Shelly Webster (the dead girlfriend), a very young Rochelle Davis (the quirky young ward), Ernie Hudson as Sergeant Albrecht (the well-meaning but not-very-helpful-despite-being-entirely-competent straight-man investigator) and an incredible roster of “bad guys” who without, the film could never have been the masterful work that it is: Michael Wincott (Top Dollar), Bai Ling (Myca), Tony Todd (Grange), Laurence Mason (Tin-Tin), Michael Masse (Funboy), David Patrick Kelly (T-Bird), and Angel David (Skank).

People have categorized this film a number of ways since its release, but I find that they’re mostly wrong.  This story, is a true romance, plain and simple.  This is the movie you should watch with your best gal (or fella) by your side, cuddled up on the couch, every once in a while exchanging goofy-grinned/starry-eyed glances, and immediately turn back to the film, sighing in love-struck heart-ache for the on-screen epic.  It just happens to be set amidst action, horror, supernatural occult, investigative crime drama, and even a car-chase around a really bad-ass car.

The acting by nearly everyone (save for a choice few “extras”) is immaculate.  The directing is superb.  The music is unprecedented (actually, it set the precedent– more on that later) and moving; basically, there just aren’t enough good things I could possibly say about the film to do it justice; you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

Yet all these typical elements which tend to make or break the film, are not solely responsible for the true majesty that is The Crow.  In order to understand that, first we have to do a little background exposition:

The story was originally written by James O’Barr in graphic novel form, in mourning for his late girlfriend who was struck and killed by a drunk driver.  The original graphic novel was even grittier than the film (which, by its own right, was pretty gritty) and a completely different story, but sharing a majority of the same themes.  In each, we see betrayal, underlings gooning around for a big crime boss, two lovers murdered, a dead boyfriend coming back to life to avenge them, all set to an edgy goth-punk ambiance. [Incidentally, While I don’t explicitly know that The Crow was one of his inspirations (and despite a pretty different art style), many similarities in theme and visceral nature can be seen between that graphic novel and in Jhonen Vasquez‘s Johnny the Homicidal Maniac— which is also brilliant, but a story for another time.]

The film was therefore based on a graphic novel that O’Barr wrote to vicariously live out the vengeance he so desperately wanted for the love of his life, taken from him too early.  The producers of the film were aware of this, and worked closely with O’Barr to ensure they did their due diligence in treating the project with respect.  This, at least, was the claim at the time (which O’Barr confirmed at the time) however I’ve heard rumours since then that there were things O’Barr was unhappy with, but having failed to ever learn those details, I’ll have to leave it at that.

This background of tragedy only added to the power and mystique which the writing (by John Shirely and David J. Schow), directing (by Alex Proyas), and acting delivered immediately at face value.  Hold on to your hats though, because we’re just getting to the most interesting parts:

Rumours surrounding the death of Bruce Lee abound, from complications surrounding fight scenes leading to his eventual demise, to the Chinese Triad murdering him or even to staging his own death so that he could flee the Triad and go into hiding.  Unfortunately, the reality isn’t nearly as dramatic, since all facts point to his death being caused by taking some pain meds for his headache, lying down for a nap, and never waking up again.

Still, with the shadows of those legends looming over him, his son Brandon had quite large boots to fill in the film scene, and it seemed he was going to do precisely that in The Crow.  Brandon’s earlier films: Kung Fu: The MovieShowdown in Little Tokyo, and Rapid Fire (to name a few), hadn’t earned him anywhere near the critical acclaim as his father.  History will show that The Crow didn’t immediately garner him success either, however the cult following it garnered has amassed wide popularity today, and it may be growing still.

Tragically, it was on the set of this very film, that Brandon Lee was actually killed, receiving a shot to the gut by a fragment of “dummy bullet” which remained in a casing for what should have been a “blank”.  (A “dummy bullet” is an actual bullet head which remains in a bullet casing lacking gunpowder, whereas a “blank” is a bullet casing containing gunpowder with the intent of being fired and causing a visible flash, but which has no actual lead bullet head in it.)  Reportedly, what happened is that the production crew had been re-using the same casings for dummies and blanks, and somehow a fragment of a dummy-head was overlooked accidentally, resulting in what is essentially, a real bullet.  Brandon died in the hospital some hours later.

The film crew was devastated.  Not only did they lose a wonderful actor, friend, husband, father, and colleage; they hadn’t even finished shooting all of his scenes, and were just over half-way through them.  After a period of mourning, everyone agreed that the best way to honour Brandon’s memory would be to finish the film in his tribute; and so they did.

They quickly re-wrote the script to remove him from as many of the remaining scenes as they could get away with, completely changed the structure of the villains to appear, and shot the remaining scenes that they needed him for with stunt doubles and (what was at the time) cutting-edge digital imposition of Brandon’s face on those doubles’ bodies.  Despite intense rumours circulating the internet, they did not keep the original scene in which Brandon was shot, in the film.  That scene was a flash-back of him entering the apartment with a bag of groceries, and he was to be shot through that bag, falling to the ground in front of the door.  In the re-shooting, the bad guys drag Eric into the middle of the room, and shoot him with his arms splayed, then throw him out the window.  From here, we see the character falling to his death, with Brandon’s digitally-imposed face on a stunt-double’s body.

(For anyone concerned about spoilers at this point, don’t worry: you know the character is dead from the outset of the film.  This exposition flash-back also takes place early, filling in details that are never presented as a mystery.)

So on top of the film’s foundation of real-life heart-wrenching romantic tragedy, the main actor whose legendary father tragically died young, now also died in the production of the film– as if he lived his whole life to ultimately culminate in this single, stunning performance, and explode out into the world like a glorious firework.  What could be more magical and romantic?

To top it all off, the director made some very risky choices for the film’s sound track, choosing a variety of underground bands– many of whom had little success– to perform existing or original pieces for the film.  The music tied everything together perfectly, and really worked well to whisk you away into the dark, seedy underbelly of this film, set in “Anywhere City, USA”.  The ravens used to perform as “Crows” were real, although sometimes set into digitally-imposed backgrounds, the rain you see throughout the film is real, which helped to naturally mute the colours which were deliberately muted throughout the film (except red and yellow– and in a single scene: blue).

All together, this created a stunning and visceral ambiance, along with a tragically romantic and magical background of production, which elevate this film to heights that practically no other may ever see again.  It is for all these reasons that I give this film the highest honour and rating I can give, the Perfect 10.  I have seen hundreds of films, probably over a thousand by now; in those hundreds, a lot of them have been great– but none can stack up against this singular masterpiece.

P.S.  Don’t watch the sequels or spin-offs (at least not until you see the original).  I wouldn’t even acknowledge their existence if not to warn you against them.

 

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