You catch your breath at the entrance the late Brandon Lee makes in The Crow. As rock guitarist Eric Draven, dead for a year when we first meet him, Lee busts out of the cold cemetery ground and howls in rage at the thugs who killed him and his fiancee. A crow stands watch as his link to life. This dazzling fever dream of a movie offers a double resurrection: Draven is back, and so, for two haunting hours, is Lee. On March 31, 1993, eight days before The Crow was due to wrap, Lee was accidentally shot and killed while filming Draven’s murder.
If you’re ready to dismiss The Crow as crass exploitation, get one thing straight: It’s not. Based on a 1980s comic-book series by James O’Barr, an ex-Marine who created Draven to deal with his anger and grief over the violent death of his own fiancee in Detroit, the film — set against a stunning backdrop of urban decay — stays faithful to its darkly poetic source.
That doesn’t make the death scene, shown in flashback, any easier to watch. Draven arrives at the loft he shares with his fiancee, Shelly (Sofia Shinas), to find her being raped by the henchmen of crime lord Top Dollar (Michael Wincott). It’s the gangbanger Funboy (Michael Massee) who shoots Draven with a .44 Magnum when he enters carrying a bag of groceries. In a film of elaborate effects, this scene was relatively simple. Lee merely had to set off an explosive device in the bag to make it appear that a bullet had struck home. Tragically, it had. Though the gun was loaded with blanks, the metal tip of a dummy bullet had become lodged in the gun’s barrel when the Magnum was used in a prior close-up. In the rush of filming in North Carolina on a low budget ($14 million), no one checked the barrel before handing the gun to Massee. When he fired, the metal tip was propelled into Lee’s abdomen. Lee died 12 hours later; he was 28.
Lee’s father, martial-arts legend Bruce Lee, was 32 when he died of a brain edema in 1973 in midproduction on Game of Death. In a devastating irony, the elder Lee played an actor who is shot when hoods replace fake bullets with real ones. Though completing The Crow required minimal use of a double, some thought the film should have been put to rest with Lee. Not his mother, Linda Lee Cadwell, or his fiancee, Eliza Hutton. They want The Crow to stand as a legacy to his talent.
That it is. Unlike others actors, from James Dean to River Phoenix, who died young and had films released posthumously, Lee hadn’t enjoyed a celebrated film career. Though he studied acting in Boston and New York, Lee was reduced to standing in his father’s shadow, making chop-socky quickies in Hong Kong (Legacy of Rage, Laser Mission) and Hollywood (Showdown in Little Tokyo, Rapid Fire). Lee knew that Draven could be his breakthrough. He lobbied hard for the part; the first choice was Christian Slater. Lee lost nearly 20 pounds to catch the gaunt fervor of a corpse on the loose; his leather-boy model was Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes. Draven is the rocker as avenging angel, prowling the streets cracking jokes and heads but also capable of expressing great feeling. Lee is sensational on all counts in a final performance that brims over with athleticism and ardor.
Sadly, the film isn’t immune to splatter-punk sadism or anti-drug sermons. Draven lectures a stoned waitress (Anna Thomson) for neglecting her young daughter, Sarah (Rochelle Davis). But the moralizing rings false when Draven kills a junkie by sticking him with drug needles. The film fares better in delineating Draven’s relationship with Sarah, the needy child, and Albrecht (Ernie Hudson), the sympathetic cop. And screenwriters David J. Schow and John Shirley manage a fair share of wicked wit. As Top Dollar, the gravel-voiced Wincott is the vilest of villains. When his half-sister and full-time lover, Myca (Bai Ling), asks if the naked babe they’ve just shared is sleeping. Top joshes, “I think we broke her.”
As Draven wreaks havoc, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Romeo Is Bleeding) films the carnage in whiplash style to a blistering soundtrack that includes the Cure, Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails and the Rollins Band. Credit Australian director Alex Proyas, best known for commercials (Nike, Kleenex) and rock videos (INXS, Sting), for pulling the elements into a fiercely hypnotic package. The look of the film, pumped by the wizardry of production designer Alex McDowell, is a marvel. Among the indelible images is Draven thrashing his guitar on the rooftops of this implacable nightmare city.
Above all is Lee, who finds the core of this tormented phantom. Despite the visionary brilliance and hip brutality, The Crow — whose closing dedication reads, “For Brandon and Eliza” — is saying that love never dies. We’ve heard that before. It’s Lee, with probing intelligence and passionate heart, who moves us to believe it.