Abashed the Devil stood, and felt how awful goodness is, and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pined his loss.
Back in my college days — I guess about five or so years ago — The Crow was one of my favorite movies. I was into the whole doom and gloom thing; it’s what I call my “ripped jeans and Nine Inch Nails” phase. Back then I had the movie as a VHS bootleg, dubbed from the widescreen laserdisc. A little noisy, but very cool. When I got my DVD player, The Crow was one of the first movies I wanted to buy, but when I researched and found it was a rather poor video transfer, and saw that it had few features for the exorbitant price tag, I pined my loss. I’m glad I waited, because the new Collector’s Series two-disc set was worth the wait. But, will I have to wait for yet another edition?
Detroit. October 30th. Night. Devil’s Night, to be precise. As the city burns around them, several hoodlums rape and mutilate Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas), and throw her boyfriend, Eric Draven (Brandon Lee), out the window to his death. Shelly dies in the hospital 30 hours later.
Detroit. October 30th. One year later. Eric rises from the grave, without his memories of that fateful night. A mysterious crow leads him back to his apartment, where he learns (through the powers given to him by The Crow that he is only beginning to understand) what happened and what his mission is on his return from the dead: to exact revenge on the men who murdered the woman he loved.
That’s the story in 117 words or less. But like most plot summaries, it doesn’t do justice to the uniqueness of The Crow. If you look in the Manual of Core Plots, the revenge story has to be among the twelve or so stories that are found in all fiction. What is distinctive to The Crow is the execution (if you’ll pardon the pun) of the story. Eric is brought back from the dead, literally, to make the wrong things right. He is imbued with special powers — not like a superhero, or Spawn of Todd MacFarlane’s comics, but with the strength of ten men (as Jeff Most mentions several times in the commentary) and the ability to heal spontaneously. Eric is only brought to life again for one purpose: his revenge.
Not enough can be said about the charisma and spirit and personality that Brandon Lee alone brought to the role of Eric Draven. The character could be played broadly, or as a typical action hero. Instead, Lee fleshed him out in all directions. We feel his emotions — the joy he felt with Shelly (as seen in flashbacks), the pain her death brought, his anger at her killers, and his bemusement with his newfound invincibility. Like the best actors, it is impossible to separate the actor from the character — when he’s on screen, Brandon Lee IS Eric Draven. It is a monumental loss that he died during production of the film, not just because the world lost a fine human being, but because it would have been the start of a very promising career. The Crow stands as both the herald of an undiscovered talent and the bearer of bad tidings that the world lost it, much as Enter The Dragon was with Brandon’s father, martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
Likewise, not enough can be said about the phenomenal direction of Alex Proyas. The Australian director has seen too little work in Hollywood; The Crow and Dark City are his only Hollywood films. Both are best described as “cult films,” but it’s unfortunate that they haven’t found wider acceptance. In both films, Proyas captures the feel of a comic book, not just in the subject matter, but in his frame composition and pacing. In fact, The Crow plays like a series of comics with its episodic nature. The film eschews the ingrained Hollywood mantra of the three-act structure. Eric moves from chapter to chapter, connected, of course, through the necessity of revenge. The Crow comics, the work of Detroit artist James O’Barr, were very dark and serious. Proyas insisted that the dire tone and spirit of the comics be translated to the film, and his dedication must be applauded. Too many Hollywood films based on serious comics turn them into jokey affairs that supposedly will have mainstream appeal. Even Tim Burton’s Batman films did not quite maintain the deadly serious personality of the comics, in particular the celebrated work of Frank Miller. Bryan Singer’s X-Men admirably tried to maintain the spirit of the comics, and it succeeded to a certain extent, but fell short due to a rushed production and weak script. The live-action version of Spawn was a miserable joke. Perhaps only Blade approaches the level of authenticity Proyas brought to The Crow, and it certainly owed a debt to The Crow‘s success (it grossed $94 million worldwide on a budget of only $6 million).
I’ve skipped over the other actors and characters up to this point, mostly because Brandon Lee is who made the movie what it is, but they also deserve mention. Ernie Hudson, probably best known as Winston Zeddemore in the two Ghostbusters films, turns in a strong performance as a police officer familiar with the case of Shelly and Eric. He is a pinpoint of goodness and light in an otherwise depraved and wicked town. Rochelle Davis, in her only screen role, does a remarkable job as the streetwise young girl who was like a surrogate daughter to Shelly and Eric, and is again touched in Eric’s brief return from the dead. The actors who portray the murderers are uniformly entertaining, but Michael Wincott separates himself as the most notable. He is among a small cadre of actors — Willem Dafoe, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper — whom I find menacing and creepy just by showing their faces…no acting needed. You’ll probably remember him as the baddie from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, though he played second fiddle to Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham throughout. He also played a role very similar to Top Dollar in Strange Days, where he seemed even raspier and whacked-out than usual.
The new Miramax/Dimension/Buena Vista “Collector’s Edition” DVD release of The Crow is very nearly everything fans of the movie have been waiting for. The film received a new anamorphic transfer, which preserves its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. I have not seen the previous disc, but this is what Widescreen Review had to say about it: “The non-anamorphic DVD picture has been dramatically altered from the stylized, purposely-created dark imagery to a distortion brightness never intended by the filmmakers. Blacks are no longer black, but gray. Colors are no longer rendered naturally, but appear washed out with extremely poor contrast. This is an unacceptable DVD presentation and butchering of the filmmaker’s art.” Needless to say, The Crow is a very dark movie, and this new transfer captures the black level perfectly. Edges are sharp without ringing, and the other colors (not that there are many) are properly presented. The only things that mar the picture are occasional dust blips or things that were problems with the original picture. Some of the background mattes appear grainier than the rest of the picture, and sometimes the special effects look a little hokey, but I won’t hold those things against the DVD itself. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1; I reviewed the Dolby Digital track. The sound is slightly disappointing. The rear channels are rarely used for anything other than incidental ambient sounds or slight support for the soundtrack. Dialogue can occasionally have an unnatural looped character (especially noticeable during Eric’s first revenge killing against Tin-Tin in the alley), but considering the production problems (namely, the star’s on-set death), that may have been beyond the filmmakers’ control. Overall, the audio is not as aggressive as such an aggressive film deserves. (I also notice at Widescreen Review’s website that the original DVD release had a Dolby Digital 4.1 track; perhaps it would explain the lack of rear support if that track’s one rear channel was merely split out to two channels. If so, shame on them.)
The extras are a disappointment, considering this is a two-disc set and some information I’ll include in the next section. What you get are a commentary track, an all-too-brief 16-minute look at the making of the film, a half-hour talk with James O’Barr, a small selection of deleted/extended scenes, another reel of a few trimmed scenes, storyboards, a few of the poster concepts, and some DVD-ROM features. The commentary track was recorded by producer Jeff Most and one of the screenwriters, John Shelby. I have my biases (again, I’ll talk about why in a minute), but the commentary was one of the worst self-serving pieces of garbage I’ve ever listened to. Most rambles on about all of his contributions to The Crow. From the sound of it, there wasn’t anyone else behind the camera, just Most and his amazing instincts. He doesn’t even mention Alex Proyas until the running-across-the-rooftops scene about twenty minutes into the movie. He doesn’t mention Brandon Lee’s death until the shoot-out at Top Dollar’s very close to the end of the film. Once or twice he gives off-handed mentions to the other screenwriter, David Schow, but he sells the picture like he and Shelby are the only ones responsible for its greatness. The making-of featurette was a promotional piece created around the time of film’s production. It contains some interviews with Brandon Lee, but that’s the only interesting part of it. I know I’ve seen segments on special effects shows detailing the work that went into completing the film after his death, and it would have been nice if some of that information had been included. The talk with James O’Barr is very interesting. He candidly discusses his troubled childhood and the death of his girlfriend that inspired his work on “The Crow.” It will give you a newfound appreciation of his talents and his honesty. The deleted scenes are nearly worth the price of the disc itself. One in particular is an extended take of the shoot-out in Top Dollar’s loft. If this cut had been included, the movie would have almost been assured an NC-17 rating. I’m not an advocate of mindless violence, but this version was so cool it left me giddy. The reel of cut footage contains what may be the Holy Grail for Crow fans: a shot of the Skull Cowboy deleted scene. I’ve heard various reports of why it was not included: that the scene was not completed due to Lee’s untimely death, that Proyas thought it was unnecessary or wasn’t happy with the effects. Whatever the reason, it’s nice to see any little bit of it. As far as I’m concerned, the storyboards and posters are mere filler. I browsed through them once, and I’ll probably never look at them again.
If you’ll recall, a couple weeks ago on the daily update I said that I might not have purchased this disc if I had known this information. Over at right, you’ll find a link to an article at David Schow’s website. In it, he details some of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that went into the making of this disc. Jeff Most was a producer on all three of the Crow films that have been released. At the time the DVD was in the works, he was trying to get a fourth movie off the ground. Of course, you must also keep in mind that The Crow: Salvation, the third film, tanked in its test run in Spokane, Washington, and did not see a wide theatrical release. According to Schow, Jeff Most cried like a schoolgirl that he was not given much credit in the materials that had been prepared for The Crow, namely the making-of featurette; a commentary track recorded by Alex Proyas, production designer Alex McDowell, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, art director Simon Murton, and Schow; and a 90-minute behind-the-scenes video recorded on set by Schow. Proyas had been promised by Miramax final approval on the materials for the DVD, but on the other hand they wanted to placate Most and keep his involvement with the planned fourth movie (why, after The Crow: City of Angels, I have no idea). So, Proyas got the shaft, to put it indelicately, while Miramax kept Most happy. A third of the making-of featurette was omitted — the parts with Proyas and Schow — and all the other stuff was left out of the set. After the contents of the DVD were locked in, the third movie tanked and plans were canceled for the fourth movie (which would have starred rapper DMX). It was all for naught.
So, what does this mean? We get a DVD set that not only does not have the endorsement of the very talented director, but it’s also one that is not as complete as it might be. To make matters worse, there’s the rumor that the Canadian company Alliance Entertainment will be making a Canadian version of the set with all the rest of the extras included. Alliance has worked with Buena Vista in the past; they produced DVDs of eXistenZ and Pulp Fiction with more extras than their U.S. counterparts, and they released a DVD of Heavenly Creatures, while Miramax did not make a release for U.S. audiences. That means that there might be some truth to the rumor. Should you wait for it? That’s for you to decide. The U.S. Collector’s Edition is sparse for a two-disc set, but on the other hand the audio and video presentation cannot be surpassed.
[Follow-Up: David Schow graciously emailed me after reading this review. He informed me that Three Legged Cat Productions, which had produced the excluded extra material, had not been approached by Alliance for rights to the material. Apparently, for Crow fans, it’s this DVD set or nothing.]
If you’re a fan of the movie and already have the original DVD release, this is a vast improvement. If you value a strong audio and video presentation of a good movie over supplemental materials, it’s also worthy of purchase. If you want the ultimate DVD edition of The Crow, you might want to wait and see if there is any truth to those Alliance rumors.
It had been several years since I had seen The Crow. While writing this review I had to ask myself, was it as good as I remembered? No…it was better. There’s depth to this story and to these characters that other action movies lack. After seeing Dark City (which I don’t think I had the last time I watched The Crow), I have greater appreciation for Proyas’ talent. Reviewing films has led me to look a little deeper under the surface of the movie, and I appreciate the intricacies of Proyas’ shot selection and set design a little more. And Eric’s run across the rooftops, accompanied by Nine Inch Nails’ cover of “Dead Souls,” is just as cool as I remember. While I’ve seen other movies that have moved further up my list of favorites, this is still a strong film. I have a feeling it’s going to be a disc I watch over and over.
While browsing through the credits at the Internet Movie Database, I looked up stunt coordinator Jeff Imada. His résumé as a stunt man and stunt coordinator looks like a Who’s Who of Action Movies going back to 1982’s Blade Runner. He worked on films like the first and fourth Lethal Weapon movies, Big Trouble In Little China, L.A. Confidential, From Dusk Till Dawn, Blade, and Fight Club. He was also a close friend of Brandon Lee. I should note that he was not involved in the on-set accident that led to Lee’s death.
Speaking of Brandon Lee’s death, rumors have persisted that his death is indeed shown on-screen in The Crow. To put those matters to rest, and to satisfy your curiosity, I’ll provide a couple excerpts. The first is from the Urban Legends Reference Pages:
“According to newspaper and magazine accounts, the scene in question was staged early in the morning of March 31, 1993, in Wilmington, North Carolina. The scene was the death of Lee’s character, Eric Draven, at the hands of street thugs, and was a pivotal plot element to the movie. Lee was to walk in through a door carrying a bag of groceries. Actor Michael Massee, who played Funboy, fired a revolver loaded with blanks at Lee. To complete the illusion, a small explosive charge was to go off in the grocery bag. Unfortunately, a fragment of a dummy bullet, used earlier in close-up shots, was lodged in the barrel, and the blank charge propelled the fragment into Lee’s side, fatally wounding him. The Internet Movie Database claims that the film was destroyed without being developed. By some accounts, however, all film taken of the scene was confiscated by Wilmington police for use in their investigation. It’s possible that investigators simply viewed a video used by the production crew for quick playback. Subsequent investigations found Lee’s death to be accidental, and while it was attributed to negligence on the part of the film crew, no criminal charges were filed. Lee’s mother, Linda Lee Caldwell, did file a civil suit, but the matter was settled out of court.”
The second excerpt is from the aforementioned Internet Movie Database:
“A scene required a gun to be loaded, cocked, and then pointed at the camera. Because of the close-range of the shot, the bullets loaded had real brass caps, but no powder. After the cut, the propsmaster (not the armsmaster — he had left the set for the day) dry-fired the gun to get the cock off, knocking an empty cartridge into the barrel of the gun. The next scene to be filmed involving that gun was the rape of Shelly. The gun was loaded with blanks (which usually contain double or triple the powder of a normal bullet to make a loud noise). Lee entered the set carrying a bag of groceries containing an explosive blood pack. The script called for Funboy (Michael Massee) to shoot Eric Draven (Lee) as he entered the room, triggering the blood pack. The cartridge that was stuck in the barrel was blasted at Lee through the bag he was carrying, killing him. The footage of his death was destroyed without being developed.”
There’s a better explanation of the events at A Boy And His Bird; I’ve included a link at right. Look in the “Crow Q&A” section.