Were it not for Brandon Lee’s death on the set of The Crow—he was killed by a gun that was supposed to be firing blanks-the movie itself would be little more than your basic heavy-metal occult revenge thriller, complete with rain-swept futuristic dreamscapes right out of Blade Runner and Batman. The truth, though, is that what happened to Lee (who was Bruce Lee’s son) lends this blood-spattered action fantasy a creepy resonance it otherwise wouldn’t have had. Based on a series of comic strips and graphic novels by James O’Barr, The Crow tells the story of Eric Draven (Lee), a small-time rock & roller who is murdered, along with his fiancee, by a gang of punks and then mystically resurrected. Haunted by memories of his death, and guided by a magical crow that serves as his all-seeing mascot, he paints his face mime- white (complete with a whiplash smile that recalls the Joker’s) and spends the rest of the film dishing out payback. He’s the vigilante as melancholy ghost, a forlorn spectre driven to brutality by the agony of his nightmares.
Whenever this tormented character flashes back to the scene of his death, the reality of Lee’s own tragedy hovers just off screen. And though it’s difficult to gauge exactly what sort of actor he might have turned out to be, in The Crow Lee displays a sweet, stricken vulnerability. Hidden behind an androgynous rock-star mane, he brings a James Dean quality of wounded adolescent passion to the sort of role most actors (Bronson, Seagal, etc.) have used merely for displays of robotic rage. Lee’s performance is by far the best thing about The Crow. Unfortunately, he’s just good enough to make you wish that the movie had had a whisper of storytelling invention to go along with its showy visual design.
Director Alex Proyas keeps the pulsating retro-noir images-the city as giant dark alleyway-rushing by with kaleidoscopic rock-video fervor. It’s like watching a Tony Scott film as edited by Sergei Eisenstein. By now, though, we’ve been through this smoky urban wasteland one too many times. (If I never see that metropolis-on-fire opening shot from Blade Runner imitated again, you won’t hear me complaining.) The characters, too, are all borrowed from other movies. There are the lascivious punk hooligans with complicated facial hair who might have stepped out of The Road Warrior and its descendants, as well as a skateboarding waif who’s like a grunge cousin to the girl from Aliens. The scene-stealing rotter Michael Wincott is on hand as some sort of kinky downtown Mr. Big, but he doesn’t have witty enough dialogue to prop up his smirking death’s-head charisma. What the film comes down to is Eric the hippie-Christ avenger offing one goon after another, and in viciously unimaginative ways. Still, if The Crow is forgettable entertainment, it can stand as an eerie epitaph for an actor who looked like he was on the way to better things.