Reviewing a Cult Classic and a True Masterpiece – The Crow (1994)

That fucking remake that’s inevitably going to be terrible still hasn’t been made. On a positive note, the latest director has dropped out and Aquaman isn’t involved anymore. HA! Good. That’s another step backwards, I’m loving this progress. Guys, this is a message, this is a signal from a higher power and it’s telling you to scrap it. Scrap it and don’t even think about it ever again. I’ve warned you all before, you do this film and you’ll be embarrassed. By me.

Now that we’ve started on a positive, I mentioned ‘The Crow’ briefly when I wrote that article about what a terrible idea it is to do a remake but I never gave it any real attention. So, what with it being ‘Spooktober’ and whilst I’m waiting for an appropriate amount of time to pass before I do another ‘Final Destination’ review, I thought I should shine some spotlight and indeed, pay my respects to what I consider to be my all-time favourite movie.

This is a film that for me cannot be topped. It excels in just about everything that I look for in a film. It’s got sterling atmosphere, great writing, good characters that drive the, admittedly, fairly basic plot but in this case, that’s a good thing. You don’t want a complicated plot when dealing with great characters.

‘The Crow’ turned 25 this year and in watching it again recently, it doesn’t look 25-years old. It still looks amazing but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, some background.

The film, as many know, is an adaptation of ‘The Crow’ comics that were written and illustrated by American comic book artist, writer and graphic artist, James O’Barr. The comic was written by O’Barr as a means of dealing with a personal tragedy and O’Barr also took some inspiration from a Detroit Newspaper story about a young couple who were murdered over a $20 engagement ring.

This is the plot of the comic book.

Eric and his fiancée, Shelly are stranded at the side of the road when their car breaks down. They are accosted and attacked by a gang during which Eric is shot in the head resulting in him being paralyzed and forced to watch as Shelly is brutally beaten, raped and then shot in the head. Eric and Shelly are taken to hospital where Eric later dies, and Shelly is pronounced ‘Dead on Arrival’.

Some time later, Eric is resurrected by a mythical crow that is the link between the world of living and the land of the dead and granted invincibility to seek revenge against the gang that killed him and the love of his life.

Barring some minor differences, the plot of the film is basically the same.

The sections in contrast to the comic; the attack by the gang takes place in their apartment rather than the roadside; Eric is stabbed, shot and thrown through a window, the attack on Shelly is the same except she is not shot in the head. Shelly is alive when she is taken to the hospital but later dies from the injuries whilst Eric is killed by the fall. Eric being a Rockstar was also an invention for the film and the band that he’s in, The Hangman’s Joke, was only seen in pictures and partially heard when Sarah (Rochelle Davis) plays a little bit of their song, ‘It Can’t Rain All The Time’ which is actually their ‘re-interpreted’ version of ‘It Can’t Rain All the Time’ by Jane Siberry. I think its Brandon Lee singing. I know he took guitar lessons for the parts where he’s playing on the roof. I couldn’t find anything online that confirmed that it was him singing. It sounds like him. I don’t know.

Anyway, another thing that was different is that T-Bird (David Patrick Kelly) was the leader of the gang in the comic and Top Dollar (Michael Wincott) was just a member of the gang whereas in the film, it was the other way around.

Let’s move on and talk a little bit about Eric Draven played remarkably by Brandon Lee.

Eric Draven was a lead vocalist and lead guitarist for ‘The Hangman’s Joke’. His past with fiancée, Shelly (Sofia Shinas) is shown through flashbacks. Now, these days with most onscreen romances, I can’t see a single reason as to why they like each other but with Eric and Shelly, I can see that they love each other, there’s real chemistry which is a remarkable achievement considering Shelly is barely seen and only in flashbacks.

What I particularly like about the casting of Brandon Lee is that even though he was a martial arts expert, it’s not primarily an ‘action’ type role. There’s a bit of action, especially near the end and some sections that would require Brandon Lee’s skills but for the most part, it’s an ‘acting’ role and on the ‘acting’ front, there’s some real talent on display.

Take his relationship with Sarah. Sarah’s father is absent and her mother, Darla (Anna Levine) is a morphine addict who’s hooking up with Funboy (Michael Massee). In the comic, Sarah, or ‘Sherri’ as she’s called, first meets Eric when he goes after Funboy but in the film, her relationship with Shelly and Eric is already established. Eric has a ‘parental’ type instinct when it comes to Sarah and there’s a scene in the graveyard that makes me cry every time. It’s where Sarah is waiting for Eric by his and Shelly’s graves and since Eric has killed all the people involved in his and Shelly’s deaths (or so he thinks), he’s preparing for the end. Sarah doesn’t want him to leave again without saying goodbye and so he gives her the engagement ring that he gave to Shelly as a way of forever remembering them. It’s beautiful and powerful sequence. There are many powerful sequences in the film but we’ll get to those later.

Eric is also rather poetic, possibly owing to his job as a songwriter and leads to some of the more ‘quotable’ moments in the film. Things like telling the Jesus Christ story to Funboy and quoting the Edgar Allan Poe poem, ‘The Raven’ to Gideon and saying, ‘Victims… aren’t we all’ right before he kills Tin-Tin are a prime example.

Whilst I do say that this film is perfect and it is… it’s not perfect. It is but it isn’t. There are a few… just a few… continuity errors. Like with every film, there are some minor errors that take someone with a really picky eye to spot such as Eric getting shot twice in his flashback and then when he’s putting on his shirt, there are five bullet wound scars in his back. However, there are some big ones that, it has to be said, are only errors because the scenes that put the ‘errors’ into context were deleted.

Ever wonder why Eric’s wrists are bare when he confronts Funboy and then in his next scene in Officer Albrecht’s apartment, his hands and wrists are covered in black tape? That’s because Funboy attacked Eric with the same razor blade that he took off Darla and cut his wrists but that scene was deleted from the film and you’d have to really be picky to think of it as a problem. I personally don’t because I think the tape completes the outfit.

What about Skank? In the scene where Skank enters the shop to get some ‘road beers’ and Eric drives off with T-Bird, you can see later on in the sequence that Skank is limping. I assumed it was because he was hit by a car but actually it’s because at the same time T-Bird drove off with Eric, a load of kids entered the shop to rob it and Skank was shot. But that scene was deleted.

I really can’t think of anything that’s bad about it except that people keep referring to this film as a ‘superhero’ film when it’s not. At least not by today’s standards. When I think of a ‘superhero’ film, I think of the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ and then I cringe. I think of a series of films that aren’t meant to be enjoyed but are guaranteed money-spinners for the studio. By this standard, ‘The Crow’ is not a superhero film.

Come to think of it, there’s not a bad apple in this bunch.

I only just realized that Tony Todd is in this film as ‘Grange’ who is Top Dollar’s right hand man. Speaking of Top Dollar, Michael Wincott did a great job of playing the main villain but then again, the majority of his roles are villains. I think it’s his voice. I thought he was putting on that deep, gravelly voice for the film but nope, that’s his voice. I think that’s why he gets all the ‘evil’ roles.

Symbolism is a major theme in this film. The villains’ own character traits are their own demise.

Tin-Tin (Lawrence Mason) was an ‘edged-weapon’ expert and so Eric kills him with his own knives; Funboy was a morphine addict so Eric kills him with an overdose, T-Bird is fond of fire and has clearly put a lot of effort in his car so Eric incinerates him inside his own car.

By the way, T-Bird’s death scene is emotional, and I did feel a little bit sorry for him. Just a little bit. As sorry as I could feel for him given all the horrible things that he’s done. It’s really a testament to a film when I could feel emotional about the death of a bad guy. What happens is that T-Bird is kidnapped by Eric and strapped into his car as he explains what happened the night he and his gang killed Eric and Shelly in the manner of a businessman explaining why the quarterly projections aren’t up to scratch. Eventually he realizes that the person behind the layer of make-up is Eric and he starts to freak out saying, ‘We put you through the window, there ain’t no comin’ back’ and in his last moments, T-Bird quotes the passage that he taunted Shelly with, ‘Abashed, the Devil stood and felt how awful goodness is’. It’s a powerful scene but then this film is full of them.

The ending is really good, and I think that it shows that they only intended to make one movie.

As Eric thinks he has killed the whole gang, he goes to the cemetery to be with Shelly. After Sarah leaves, she’s taken by Grange into the Church. Eric and his crow enter where the crow is wounded and Eric loses his invincibility. After he’s shot by Top Dollar, Albrecht bursts in, kills Grange and buys Eric some time to escape. Top Dollar takes Sarah to the roof of the church and his ‘sister’, Myca (Bai Ling) is killed by the crow. Eric and Top Dollar have their fight to the end where Eric is wounded by a sword through the torso. As Eric bleeds out, Top Dollar admits that he ordered Eric and Shelly’s deaths but before Top Dollar can land the killing blow, Eric gives him the 30 hours of pain felt by Shelly before she died which he took from Albrecht earlier. Eric drops Top Dollar off the roof, rescues Sarah and leaves her with a wounded Albrecht just as help arrives. Eric collapses at Shelly’s grave where her ghost arrives to take him to the afterlife. In the aftermath, the crow gives Sarah the ring that Eric gave to her and then Sarah has the word by giving an amazing quote that makes me cry every time.

“If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever.”

Written by John Shirley, directed by Alex Proyas and with an initial budget of $15 Million that was then raised to $23 Million, ‘The Crow’ was a sleeper hit taking in $50.7 Million in the US.

However.

Whilst ‘The Crow’ was a massive success both critically and financially, it came at a massive cost. The kind of cost that doesn’t have a cost. ‘Priceless’ you might say. To fully explain the true cost, another story needs to be told. And that is the story of Brandon Lee.

Brandon Bruce Lee was born February 1st, 1965 to mother, Linda Lee Cadwell and father, Bruce Lee in Oakland, California. Bruce Lee was famous for his martial arts abilities and the movies where he displayed those abilities. Young Brandon was to be skilled by his father in such abilities, namely ‘Kung-Fu’. The Lee family moved to Hong Kong for two years (1971 – 1973) but then moved back to the US after Bruce Lee’s death in July, 1973.

At the age of 18, Lee received his GED and then attended Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts where he majored in Theatre.

In 1986, Lee made his acting debut alongside fellow martial artist, the late David Carradine in ‘Kung Fu: The Movie’. The same year, Lee would get in first starring role as Brandon Mac in ‘Legacy of Rage’. Following in his father’s footsteps, Lee would appear in four more marital arts/action projects before landing the part of Eric Draven in ‘The Crow’. ‘Laser Mission (1989)’ and ‘Kung Fu: The Next Generation’ I haven’t seen but ‘Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991) in which he co-stars with Dolph Lundgren is really good and Lee also appears in ‘Rapid Fire (1992)’ which I have seen but I can’t remember much of.

In this time, Brandon met Eliza Hutton and the two fell madly in love and they became engaged in October of 1992 with plans to be married in the weeks following completion of ‘The Crow’.

During production, all the scenes of Lee in the make-up had been scheduled to be filmed first and the ‘flashback’ scenes would be filmed last. The scene required Michael Massee’s (Funboy) .44 Smith & Wesson Magnum Revolver to be equipped with blank cartridges whereas a previous scene had required ‘dummy’ cartridges. ‘Dummy’ cartridges are defined as bullets that have no primer or gunpowder and are only necessary when the gun in question does not need to be fired but the bullets inside the chamber do need to be shown in the shot. ‘Dummy’ cartridges are more convincing than ‘blanks’ which have the bullet removed altogether.

Rather than buying the dummy cartridges, the prop guys, who were already under severe time limitations, decided to make their own dummy cartridges by removing the cap, dumping the gunpowder and then replacing the cap. However, they’d unknowingly left the primer still inserted in the back of cartridge. At some point during filming, the .44 revolver was fired which set off the primer, but with no powder to accelerate the process, the bullet became lodged in the gun barrel.

To prepare for the ‘flashback’ scene, the dummy cartridges were removed and ‘blanks’ were inserted. ‘Blank’ cartridges contain no bullet but do contain gunpowder, allowing for the flash and sound of gunfire but with no risk of a projectile. When the gun was loaded not by a firearms specialist who had been sent home early, but by a prop assistant who was not aware of the regulations when it came to checking firearms, the barrel was not checked for any debris that may have been left behind.

In the scene, Lee was meant to walk into his apartment holding a bag of groceries which actually contained a squib and blood pack so when Michael Massee’s character ‘shot’ him, the squib would go off and the blood pack would burst, making it look like he’d been shot. However, when Michael Massee was handed his character’s .44 revolver and aimed it at Lee and pulled the trigger, as he was instructed to do, the bullet that had been lodged in the chamber was forced out at the same velocity as if it were a live round. The bullet hit Lee in the abdomen and he fell to the ground. Lee was rushed to New Hanover Medical Centre in Wilmington, North Carolina where doctors tried desperately to save him. However, after six hours of surgery, their attempts were unsuccessful and at 1:03PM EST, Brandon Lee was pronounced dead. He was 28 years old.

In the aftermath and subsequent investigation, neither the director, the prop team nor Michael Massee had criminal charges brought against them and Lee’s death was ruled as an accident due to negligence. Footage of the shooting did exist since they were filming a take at the time. That footage was developed, used for the investigation and then destroyed.

Apparently, safety on the set was an issue. On the first day of filming, a carpenter suffered severe burns when their crane hit live power lines other ‘situations’ included a grip truck catching fire, a crew member accidentally driving a screw driver through his hand, a disgruntled sculptor ramming his car through the plaster shop and a stuntman broke several ribs after falling through a roof.

Not only was the death of Brandon Lee devastating and tragic, the crew could not escape the fact that the film was not complete. They’d spent their $15 Million budget and they were out of time. Subsequently, Paramount pulled out of their distribution deal due to the delays in filming and the controversy over the films violent content given Lee’s death. However, Miramax offered the production an additional $8 Million to complete the film. The cast took a break as the script was rewritten and the flashback scenes were changed.

The ‘flashback’ scenes were originally meant to be the opening of the film but that was changed to what we see now. Instead, Lee’s stuntman Chad Stahelski acted as a body double and using what was then cutting edge technology, Lee’s face was superimposed onto his.

These were the scenes that were altered or filmed after Brandon Lee’s death.

When Eric first enters the apartment after pulling himself out of the grave was done by taking footage of Brandon Lee walking down an alley in the rain and water was composited onto the door frame so the water on his back would match. The whole flashback scene with Eric re-enacting his final moments were used with a body double. Eric putting on the make-up to that awesome song by ‘The Cure’ was done with a body double and then at the end, Brandon Lee’s face was superimposed onto the body double with lightning flashes used to mask the CGI.

Also, when Sarah enters the apartment and she’s looking for Eric and when she’s about to leave, Eric appears… that’s not Brandon Lee. That’s a body double.

I want to come back to the flashback scenes. I’ve mentioned this before, and I’ll mention it again. The audience doesn’t see Eric’s face during the flashback scene and whilst we all know the real reason, the other consequence is that the scene has more of an impact. Not seeing his facial reactions to what he’s experiencing but rather his physical reactions mixed with the actual flashback along with the amazing score by Graeme Revell makes it a very powerful scene.

In the aftermath of Lee’s death, his body was flown to Jacksonville, North Carolina and then flown to Seattle, Washington. On 3rd April, 1993, a private funeral was held for Brandon Lee with 250 close friends and family attending. Brandon Lee was buried in the plot that had been reserved for his mother, next to his father, Bruce Lee.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Brandon Lee’s death was a tragedy but for one person, this tragedy would follow him for the rest of his life. Michael Massee was so traumatized by Brandon Lee’s death that he moved to New York and took a one-year long hiatus from acting. When he returned to acting, he went on to have a varied and successful career, but he was always known as ‘the man who shot Brandon Lee’.

Sadly, Michael Massee passed away in 2016 from Stomach Cancer at the age of 64 and I remember reading the news article reporting his death and it read ‘Actor who shot Brandon Lee dies aged 64’, the assumption being that we wouldn’t know who he was by merely seeing his name but by referencing this one tragic event that he had the misfortune of being involved in and probably spent a lot of his life trying to get over, that would jog our memory? Nope. I still don’t think that’s fair. Michael Massee was in some really good stuff.

To round this article off, I just want to shine some light on another aspect that I feel must be taken into consideration when discussing ‘The Crow’. I feel, and this is my opinion, that the fact that Brandon Lee died gave the film another meaning. It puts the film into a different context, especially with the themes of death and the afterlife that run through the plot and the characters. Given the dark subject matter of the film’s plot and the tragic backstory, it stands to reason that an audience member would feel like they weren’t watching Eric Draven but Brandon Lee in his last film. And so, at the end, when Shelly comes for Eric to take him to the afterlife and we see that the film was dedicated to Brandon and Eliza, then maybe we could feel that Brandon Lee has found peace.

There’s no doubt that ‘The Crow’ has to this day, a very loyal cult following and the film itself was a huge influence on the ‘Goth’ scene in the 90’s. The make-up alone was iconic.

I feel that ‘The Crow’ still lives up to its reputation of being an extraordinary film. The characters are entertaining and well-written, Brandon Lee’s performance continues to mesmerize me each time I watch it and the same scenes get the same reaction from me each time. There are a few funny bits here and there but given the dark plot, those funny little moments aren’t ruined because the performances are so solid. And yet, we cannot escape the knowledge that it’s lead actor died an avoidable death at a tragically young age.

This would have been his breakout role, the role that he was known for and instead, it’s role he’s remembered for. ‘The Crow’ is Brandon Lee’s legacy.

I really will finish now with my favourite quote from Bruce Lee which I feel is very poignant for this article.

‘The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering’.

Bruce Lee, Michael Massee and Brandon Lee… They all definitely did.

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