"The Crow," starring the late Brandon Lee, is like one long fright night. Even though it was photographed in color, the edge-of-darkness atmosphere descends on the audience like a shroud.
The "Batman" movies were probably the first to transfer the new style in doom-and-gloom comic book fantasias to the screen, but "The Crow" makes those films seem happy-go-lucky. On its own terms it's highly effective but that doesn't mean you have to accept its terms. It's almost unremittingly grungy and overwrought--"Blade Runner" with a hangover--with an eardrum-blasting industrial rock score to go with its eyeball-popping industrial rock look.
Tortured male adolescents will probably connect with the film's agonizing, horrific, masochistic pageantry of ghoulish tortures and high-style garrotings rhythmed to resemble a berserk rock video. The director Alex Proyas is an award-winning TV commercial and rock video director, and, along with screenwriters David J. Schow and John Shirley, he puts across this adaptation of the J. O'Barr "Crow" cult comic books with grim glee. He's selling pop pubescent nihilism with a stroboscopic, rock-hero kick.
Lee, who was accidentally shot dead on the set of "The Crow" with eight days of filming left, plays a Detroit rock guitarist, Eric Draven, who returns from the dead on Halloween eve, guided by a mysterious crow, to avenge his own gangland murder and that of his fiancee. Draven is, at least in his post-dead incarnation, a feral harlequin with a mime-white face and blood-red lipstick. He goes after each member of the gang responsible for the slaughter with a hyperbolic vengeance; we're encouraged to relish the killings, "Death Wish"-style. But "The Crow" is so far removed from any social agenda that, unlike the "Death Wish" films, its squashings and torchings are pure theater. It's a reactionary movie without anything to react against.
This is one of the few recent films where the bad guys are, literally, overshadowed by the hero. This overshadowing is an achievement, since a few of the nasties, including Top Dollar (Michael Wincott) and T-Bird (David Patrick Kelly), are scenery-chomping world-class scum. With his dirty lanky hair and noxious killer smiles, Top Dollar, who couples with his half-sister Myca (Bai Ling), is the gangland crime lord as polymorphous perverse Capone. The pointy-chinned T-Bird is like an atrocious imp--a self-winding mayhem machine.
Draven overwhelms their awfulness by flaunting his fire-and-brimstone invulnerability. Protected by the crow, which functions as a kind of aviary spirit guide, he wades into the fray and boggles his victims. There's something unreasonably satisfying about seeing bullies this bad get drubbed.
The only reason for a grown person to check out "The Crow" is for Lee--and not for sentimental reasons, either. What gives the movie its mite of "heart" is that, as Lee plays him, Draven's fury comes out of an almost operatic pain. Lee has phenomenal presence, and his movements are so balletically powerful that his rampages seem like waking nightmares. Lee keeps you watching "The Crow" when you'd rather look away. His death means there won't be a sequel to "The Crow"--no loss--but his star presence was the real thing.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong violence and language, and for drug use and some sexuality. Times guidelines: It includes all sorts of graphic violence, extreme tension and mayhem, and some drug usage.
Brandon Lee: Eric Draven
Ernie Hudson: Albrecht
Michael Wincott: Top Dollar
David Patrick Kelly: T-Bird
A Miramax/Dimension release, presented in association with Entertainment Media Investment Corp. of an Edward R. Pressman production in association with Jeff Most. Director Alex Proyas. Producers Pressman, Most. Executive producer Robert L. Rosen. Screenplay by David J. Schow, John Shirley, based on the comic strip series by James O'Barr. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. Editors Dov Hoenig, Scott Smith. Costumes Arianne Phillips. Music Graeme Revell. Production design Alex McDowell. Set decorator Marthe Pineau. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
* In limited release at the Mann Chinese Theater, 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (310) 289-MANN, and the Cineplex Odeon Universal City Theater, Universal City. (818) 508-0588. On Friday, in general release throughout Southern California.