The Crow will be forever defined by the tragedy that occured during its production. On March 31st, 1993, star Brandon Lee was shot and killed on the set, the result of a mishandled prop gun. The film was around 80% complete, so the work was finished with the help of stunt doubles, crafty editing, and CGI. As a result, a strange energy pulses through The Crow, a story about a senseless death made more real and powerful by the senseless death that occurred making it. Now, we the audience can only bear witness: This film was meant to announce Lee as a major new star. Instead, it’s only the sad testament to everything that might’ve been.
Based on James O’Barr’s limited comic book series, The Crow takes place in a smoldering, soot-stained Detroit. It’s Devil’s Night, providing a scuzzy legion of criminals with a little extra motivation to pillage and burn the city into a battered husk. In this shockwave of violence, aspiring rock star (Lee) Eric and his fiancée (Sofia Shinas) Shelly are gunned down by a rabid, sadistic band of thieves. They are only mourned by two people: Sarah (Rochelle Davis) is an impoverished girl cared for by the couple, while Albrecht is the hard-nosed cop with a durable sense of decency. For everyone else, these murders are just another act of monstrosity, destined to go forever unsolved.
That is, until one year later. As Devil’s Night again rages uncontrolled, Eric crawls from his grave. He is now an undead vigilante, infused with strength and invulnerability. Eric is haunted by the memories of both his beautiful life and heinous death. His molten anger forges a deadly new purpose: Eric will become The Crow, a goth vigilante who will rain terror on his murderers. His guide will be a supernatural crow, who caws and flutters from one killer to the next.
Along this journey, The Crow will meet an assortment of jabbering psychopaths. He doles out allegorical punishments, tailored to the sins of each murderer. (A junkie is perforated with syringes, etc.) As the bodies begin to pile, The Crow quickly accrues a reputation with the criminal underground. This puts him on the radar of Top Dollar (Michael Wincott), the cold-blooded kingpin determined to keep the city under his control. As Eric kills his way up the ladder, you can probably guess where the story goes from here.
What makes The Crow so inherently gripping is how its grungy, neo-noir aesthetic intermingles with Lee’s tragic death to create such a tense, eerie experience. The crime scene of Eric’s death would become an actual crime scene, and watching fictitious cops navigate yellow tape in that room is absolutely surreal. It gave me a strange guilt, as if I was rubbernecking a fatal accident. (The real footage of Lee’s death was scrubbed.)
Ironically, Lee’s performance elevates The Crow from just being an onset tragedy. He has the same charisma and lithe agility as his father. (Bruce Lee’s mysterious death at 32 only adds to the melancholia of this film.) Beyond the sheer force of his personality, Lee adds bruised humanity and genuine vulnerability to Eric. This is his movie; all the other actors are just living in it. It’s impossible not to imagine the star Lee would’ve become. He has some of the anarchic humor of a Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt. His future probably would’ve taken him far beyond potboiler action movies.
Unfortunately, dreaming is all we can do. Both Brandon and Bruce Lee offered tantalizing glimpses of their ascending talent and ambition, only to have them vanish in an instant. On its own merit, The Crow is a fascinating, macabre little superhero flick. It probably would’ve found a long life on home video. (The pounding soundtrack of 90s alt-rock hits is worth a full star in of itself.) Still, Lee’s death adds a grim, unavoidable subtext: Whenever we go back and experience Lee’s star-making performance, it gives us a deeper sense of the void left by his passing.
102 min. R. Paramount Plus.