Review by Katherine Follett
Posted on 16 July 2008
Source Miramax/Dimension DVD
The Crow is by now more of a cultural artifact than it is a film, at least in the strict sense as a narrative recorded on celluloid. Reviewing it as a film without taking into account its complicated context is to deny its primary appeal as one of the most enduring cult movies of the 1990s. I also feel a little guilty coming to The Crow so late – I watched it for the first time just this spring – because it served as such a touchstone for a certain counterculture that’s played a large, if supporting, role in my life. Being a person who owns black lipstick who has never seen The Crow is like being an alternative-rock snob who has never heard Nevermind.
Much of the The Crow’s significance stems from its notorious reputation as Brandon Lee’s breakthrough and ultimately last film. Lee, the son of legendary martial artist and actor Bruce Lee, was accidentally killed by a broken prop gun a few days shy of the end of shooting. With the blessing of Lee’s family, director Alex Proyas went on to finish and release the film, using body doubles and some small, unnoticeable digital trickery in what were to be Lee’s remaining few scenes. The film became a monument to the younger Lee, whose pedigree and undeniable good looks may have made him a star had he survived. At the time of its release, The Crow was also troubled by rumors that footage of the fatality was in the final cut, creating a morbid (if apocryphal) Easter egg for those so inclined to seek it.
Not that The Crow needs any help being morbid. The film is based on the graphic novel by James O’Barr. Lee plays Eric Draven, a rock star who, along with his fiancee, is murdered by gang members the night before his Halloween wedding. Draven returns from the grave exactly one year later, accompanied by a crow acting as his bridge between the lands of the living and the dead, to extract extremely stylish revenge. O’Barr himself wrote the comic as a way of dealing with the death of his girlfriend, and reportedly based the physicality of Draven’s character on post-punk/goth icons Ian Curtis of Joy Division (yet another young death associated with the film) and Peter Murphy of Bauhaus. The film follows a fairly conventional revenge-action-flick arc as Draven hunts down the gang members in order of significance, climaxing with a showdown between Draven and the local crime boss.
I can’t bring myself to call The Crow a good film. Its plot is hackneyed and predictable. There is almost nothing to leaven the relentless seriousness, and the very few light moments fail at comedy. The characters are stock and tissue-thin. It includes several of my action-movie pet peeves, including a scrappy tough kid with a gooey center, gang members or hoodlums engaging in celebratory violence for no discernible reason other than to prove they’re bad (boo, hiss!), and drug use as a shorthand for glamorous soullessness. While Brandon Lee had a lot going for him as far as celebrity potential, his acting doesn’t achieve a lot of depth (not that a lot is asked for). But the substance of the film is immaterial. The Crow remains, more than anything, the quintessential Goth Movie.
Goth is a subculture of aesthetics, in which images and atmosphere are paramount. And The Crow’s images and atmosphere are spot-on. The chiming notes of The Cure begin pumping in just as Draven dons his white makeup and black eyeliner to take on his vengeful-ghost persona. As his costume is shredded and repaired over the course of the film, it ends up resembling nothing more than your classic goth-boy corset-and-mesh-shirt ensemble. Even the super-villain has flat-ironed, dyed-black hair, with a three-quarter length coat and skinny pants. (I don’t remember his shoes, but I’m willing to bet they’re 48-hole Docs.) The soundtrack is a who’s who of post-punk, goth, and some of the more dirge-y rock of the era. Crumbling churches, echoing alleyways, abandoned lofts comprise much of the sets, and the club scenes are set in the ultimate dance dungeon, with chains for streamers and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult perpetually onstage. It is never sunny. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but even the gang-members Draven picks off one-by-one look something like the goth’s high-school bully nemeses: a jock, a hippie, a car-loving hick… They’ll never call you a fag-clown again!
1994 precedes the explosion of both comic-book film adaptations and successful action films that are highly concerned with style (The Matrix was still five years away). Compared to many that came after, it’s astonishing how well The Crow re-creates the artful look of O’Barr’s stark, black-and-white graphic novel—second only, I would say, to Sin City in live-action adaptations. The sets, especially the cityscapes, are intentionally flat and decorative-looking. There are several shots of the crow swooping through the skyline, and the bird’s-eye view of the sketchy (in both senses) buildings and streets makes them look like grim toys. Many scenes are composed almost as stills, with characters framed unmoving against perfectly composed, silhouetted backgrounds.
Today, many action movies aim for this sort of stark, archetypal beauty. Most that try either fall short or end up way, way over the top. It’s an awkward balance between vengeful brutality, ‘splosions, and pretensions to grace. The Crow is one of the few that successfully marries these elements. Most action films before and during the mid-90s banked on, well, action, assuming that gunplay has more appeal than poeticism for their target audience of teenage boys. But when the teenage boys are in love with morbid romanticism, the pairing of violence and carefully staged beauty feels natural. (It should be noted that Brandon Lee’s father’s films also manage to pull this off, if using very different techniques.) By the time Draven gets around to killing the head thug, it matters not in the least that the flashbacks of exposition (something to do with tenants’ rights. Or something) are clumsy and basically irrelevant—the image of the silhouetted crow drawn in flame against the black cityscape, with the choir swelling in the background, is classic, and unlike the slow-mo car explosion seconds earlier, something brand new (for its time) in action movies.
Goth, unlike many subcultures, values image as much as it does opinion or background; it’s based on enjoying a particular aesthetic, instead of fancying itself the voice of an oppressed underclass (though some hard-core goths will argue with me here). You can dress punk and still have people accuse you of not “being” punk, but once you go out in the summertime wearing solid black and skull-like makeup, you are goth. And The Crow, even though it has all the hallmarks of a traditional action movie, is goth once it dons black costumes and an industrial soundtrack. But the film’s strongest claim to goth legitimacy is the tragic death of its young star. Unlike River Phoenix or Heath Ledger, Lee had yet to become truly famous. The Crow was his first starring role in his first major film. The character of Eric Draven is all most people have ever seen of Lee, and for them, Lee is Draven, and Draven is Lee. It’s worth noting that none of the actors who have starred in The Crow’s sequels have become nearly as well-loved. And unlike Phoenix and Ledger, Lee died while actually creating the film he’s revered for. His death was sinisterly mysterious, as were rumors that it was included in the final cut. If anything, Lee’s death is more powerful, more darkly romantic, and more memorable than the film itself. And the film, artistically, benefits greatly from it (which is absolutely NOT to imply that the filmmakers are cashing in on Lee’s death; everything I’ve read portrays them as extremely respectful of Lee, his family, and his memory). Lee’s death gives it just the right note of tragic pathos to make it not just legitimate within a subculture that glorifies all things morbid, but powerful and moving as a tribute to its star. By taking an underground subculture and pairing it with standard action fair, by marrying gore and delicate beauty, by becoming an honest-to-goodness memorial, The Crow is wildly successful as “the Goth Movie,” even if it is less successful as a film.