The Brief Life and Unnecessary Death of Brandon Lee

On the set of The Crow, meanwhile, speculation took a more practical turn. From the scene of the shooting, Wilmington police confiscated film and video, the revolver, and two empty shell casings, one from a blank and one from a ''dummy'' bullet — film-industry terminology for a cartridge that has no gunpowder and is intended for use when a filmmaker requires close-ups of realistic-looking bullets. Within days, a detailed theory about what might have gone wrong emerged: While preparing a gun for use in a close-up, second-unit crew members on The Crow may have altered a dummy bullet that didn't fit the revolver by cutting off its end and placing its lead tip in the chamber. When the close-up was finished, the gun may have been handed off to a prop man who put it on a truck, then refilled it with blanks, inadvertently leaving the lead tip deep in one chamber. When Massee eventually fired the gun, the lead tip would have flown out, propelled by the blank with some, though not all, of the impact of a loaded .44.

But even assuming that that accidental scenario is correct, some troubling issues remain to be resolved. In Entertainment Weekly's interviews with Secret Service agents as well as special-effects, props, and firearms experts within the film industry, the following questions were raised:

· Why wasn't Lee given a protective vest, the standard industry practice whenever an actor is within 20 feet of a firearm aimed toward him?

· Why was the bullet able to hit Lee when almost all weapons and effects experts advise actors to aim away, knowing that film directors can then ''cheat'' the shot to make the actor's aim appear dead-on?

· Was J.B. Jones, The Crow's special-effects man, shortcutting industry practice by doubling as a weapons supervisor on the night of the shooting?

· Was the fact that much of The Crow's crew was nonunion and working, by some accounts, exceptionally long and late hours a contributing factor?

· Why, given the potential danger to Lee from both the gun and the grocery-bag squib, was no weapons specialist — the final arbiter of a gun's safety-present on the set? Was it because the film's producers were trying to save money by reducing the number of days the specialist was paid?

A chain of coincidence as elaborate as those questions suggest is one reason that some in the Wilmington Police Department have left open the possibility of foul play. But if, in fact, Brandon Lee was killed by accident, a more wrenching question lingers: Was the actor's life lost simply because somebody, heedless of risk in the most dangerous of on-set situations, cut one corner too many?

Brandon Lee's death brought to a grimly abrupt conclusion the production of a film that had already seen more than its share of disasters. ''Pictures have personalities, and there are some that don't want to get made,'' The Crow's executive producer, Robert L. Rosen, said last month. ''I would certainly put this one into that category.'' Indeed, ''the curse of The Crow,'' as some of the film's crew members labeled it, had cast a pall over the set since Feb. 1, the first day of principal photography, when Jim Martishius, a 27-year-old carpenter, was severely burned by a live power line that hit his crane. That same evening, the production's grip truck, parked on the Carolco backlot, caught fire. ''After that,'' says the film's unit publicist, Jason Scott, ''people started keeping track of everything that happened.''

The list of bizarre incidents quickly grew. A construction worker accidentally put a screwdriver through his hand; a disgruntled set sculptor rammed into The Crow's plaster-sculpture studio with his car; a drive-by shooting occurred just blocks from a Crow location. Soon after, some crewmen on The Hudsucker Proxy, a dark comedy starring Tim Robbins and Paul Newman that was sharing studio space with The Crow, began keeping tabs on all of the catastrophes that were emanating from the set next door. (''It was kind of a hobby here for a while,'' says one Hudsucker crew member.) On occasion, the Crow crew even joined in the smiling-through-chaos spirit. ''I told them our unit photographer had broken a tooth on a craft service bagel,'' says production coordinator Jennifer Roth.

Just when the man-made accidents seemed to abate, natural disasters joined in to make the remainder of the shoot as difficult as possible — notably a March 13 storm that destroyed the set. ''My next movie,'' joked producer Rosen after that, ''is gonna be two people in a phone booth.''

But none of the rigors of shooting The Crow fazed its energetic star in the least. ''I'm really enjoying it,'' said Brandon Lee in one of his final interviews. ''It's an opportunity for me a plum role. It's got a haunted quality that I really like.'' Ten years after dropping out of high school, Lee was on the verge of realizing his dream — a chance to star in a movie in which his role did not depend on the martial artistry he had been learning since he was 2 years old. By last summer, Lee had become so determined to build a reputation on his own that he turned down a chance to play his father in Universal's biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (the film opens in May with Jason Scott Lee — no relation — in the title role).

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