Director: Alex Proyas
Cast: Brandon Lee, Michael Wincott, Ernie Hudson, Sofia Shinas, Rochelle Davis, Bai Ling, David Patrick Kelly, Angel David, Laurence Mason, Michael Massee, and Tony Todd
The Crow is one of those movies that is shot, edited, and designed in such a way that adds layers to the material, layers that were otherwise absent in the script. The screenplay by John Shirley and David J. Schow is kind of thin if you think about it too much. It basically serves as an excuse for the style, which is as it should be, because here, the style is the material, not the script. The Crow works so well as a spellbinding visual poem that, even if you were to turn the sound off, it would still come across as a captivating and emotional experience.
The movie is based on a comic book by James O'Barr, and takes place in a hellish comic book metropolis that looks like a cross between Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Tim Burton's Batman, and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. The architecture of the buildings are exaggerated to an almost ghastly degree. The entire city is bathed in shadows, smoke, and torrential rain storms. At night, the city seems to be completely deserted, except for a car full of thugs who set the city on fire every October the 30th, a holiday of sorts the city acknowledges as "Devil's Night" ("They even have Devil's Night greeting cards," says one of the thugs in the film).
The story is pretty straightforward. In the movie's opening voice over narration, we learn that when someone dies, a crow carries their spirit to the land of the dead. But when a spirit is restless because of some unfinished business on Earth, the crow will bring that soul back from the dead, "to put the wrong things right." Such a soul is rock musician Eric Draven (Brandon Lee), who was murdered along with his fiance Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas) the night before their wedding. One year later, the crow brings Eric back from the dead, and guides him as he goes about exacting revenge against the thugs who murdered him and Shelly.
That's pretty much all the plot there is, and in the hands of a lesser director, the movie might have come across as nothing but a violent shoot-em-up. But director Alex Proyas uses a very particular visual strategy to add thematic weight to the movie. Take Eric's resurrection as an example. Proyas juxtaposes Eric rising from the grave with shots of stone angels in the cemetery, suggesting that Eric is less a blood thirsty zombie and more of an avenging angel bringing hope to a city that seems to be without it. It makes sense. After all, he gets one woman off drugs and has her reunite with her daughter. It's even suggested in the film's opening shot of a city on fire, that's later contrasted with a shot of the city drenched in a cleansing rain storm.
The atmosphere he brings to the movie, dark as it is, is positively hypnotic as well. The scene where Eric paints his face and prepares for battle is chillingly effective, as is the scene where he makes a giant flaming crow after killing one of the thugs. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski adds considerably to the atmosphere by filming the movie in almost drained out colors. He also pulls off a number of brilliant shots. The scenes where he has the camera swoop gracefully through the city, almost like a bird, are simply astonishing. The best shot, however, comes when Eric blows up a pawn shop by dousing it with gasoline and shooting a shotgun full of engagement rings into the place. The shot itself carries symbolic weight, especially once you consider that the owner of the establishment destroyed lives to obtain those rings in the first place.
The always likable Ernie Hudson provides some solid supporting work as the friendly beat cop Albrecht, who helps Eric on his quest, and Michael Wincott oozes with menace as the utterly despicable Top Dollar, the main crime boss in the city. But the one performance that stands out the most, and the one that is crucial to the movie's success, is the one turned in by Brandon Lee, who tragically died of a gunshot wound eight days before shooting was completed. I haven't seen many of Lee's films prior to this one, but if his work here is any indication, he was on his way to becoming a great action star. His performance is electrifying and charismatic, especially during the scene where he taunts one of his victims with a joke about Jesus Christ checking into a hotel. However, it's hard not to feel a sense of melancholy watching him on screen. There is a freeze frame of his face in particular, after kids dressed up in Halloween costumes circle around him, that breaks my heart every time I see it.
Casting a few plot holes aside, like Eric's unexplained ability to read minds and to use said ability as a weapon against his enemies, The Crow is a terrific achievement. Visually speaking, the movie is a masterpiece, and as an action picture, it offers its share of thrilling and memorable set-pieces. More than anything, it serves as a tragic reminder of what a great talent the world lost in Brandon Lee.
Final Grade: *** ½ (out of ****)
A very hard R for extreme violence, profanity, drug use, a rape scene, nudity, very disturbing elements