Thursday, 11 January 2018

Elwood's Essentials #17 - The Crow

Title: The Crow
Director: Alex Proyas
Released: 1994
Starring: Brandon Lee, Michael Wincott, Ernie Hudson, Rochekke Davis, Bai Ling, David Patrick Kelly, Angel David, Jon Polito, Tony Todd, Sofia Shinas, Michael Massee, Laurence Mason

Plot: One year after being murdered Eric Draven (Lee) is resurrected by the power of The Crow to extract revenge on the gang who killed him and his fiancée Shelly (Shinas)

Review: An iconic cult movie for a number of reasons especially in terms of style and design aswell as the tragic death of leading man Brandon Lee in an event echoing the death of his own father Bruce Lee. More so when this film much like “Enter The Dragon” is frequently seen as the film which would have finally launched Brandon into the mainstream having previously put in memorable turns in “Showdown In Little Tokyo” and “Rapid Fire”. Certainly for myself it was one of those films whose VHS cover drew me in long before I knew anything about the film or it’s tragic and highly problematic production as I discovered it of all places in my local (and long since defunct) record store and since that initial discovery has remained a film I still love to go back and revisit.

Based on the equally cult comic book by James O’Barr who had originally wrote the story as a way of dealing with his own personal grief when his fiancée was killed by a drunk driver, while drawing further inspiration for the story from a newspaper article he'd read about a young couple who were killed in Detroit for a $20 engagement ring. At the same time it should be noted that while the source comic is still an incredible piece of work and certainly raw emotion with its distinctive black and white illustration it’s not a piece which works as a straight adaption. As such instead of following the source material’s path of unflinching violent revenge between bouts of Eric’s emotional torment we get a more traditional revenge movie yet one which still retains the core elements of the source material.

Proyas brings the world certainly to life here as he paints a crime riddled vision of Detroit were it is almost permanently night and raining, only allowing some colour into the world once Eric gets close to completing his quest for revenge. Proyas had though originally wanted to shoot the film completely in black and white and only use colour for the flashback sequences which the studio unsurprisingly wouldn’t get behind especially for what was already a risky concept. Still while perhaps not the vision he had intended this city of almost permanent midnight is still an effective playground for the story to playout in.

While he might not have been the first choice for the role of Eric with O’Barr citing Johnny Depp as his personal choice for the role, while River Phoenix and Christian Slater were also seen as being up for consideration for the part. Brandon Lee though was of course much more of an unknown talent and no doubt better known for being the son of a famous martial artist than his previous films, but watching the film now and seeing how he embodies the role of Eric its hard to see anyone else in the role and even now after numerous sequels it’s still Lee which we see as being the definitive embodiment of the character. What further helps Lee’s portrayal of the character are the moments of humanity he gets throughout rather than just being a vessel for revenge on T-Bird and his gang and while the flashbacks might be a little too smaltzy he does manage with these brief flashes of his former life manage to give us an idea of who he was before he became “The Crow”.

Considering Lee’s background as a martial artist it might seem strange in the fact that he doesn’t in fact get to do much bar a move here or there with the film being much more focused on heroic gunplay. Were it does pay off though is with his body movements and much like the casting of dancers like Michelle Yeoh in Martial Arts movies here it equally pays off as Eric is shown as moving with cat like movements especially as he prowls the city roof tops in search of the gang members on his list. The fact that he is so charismatic and hypnotic in his performance is only an added bonus.

Opening on “Devil’s Night” the night before Halloween were the city gangs cause acts of vandalism and arson throughout the city, which surprisingly was actually a thing in Detroit until the mid 90’s when it was Detroit official's organised “Angel’s Night” were volunteer patrols protect their neighbourhoods from arson attacks. Here though it’s seen as a calling card for the city’s top crime boss Top Dollar (Wincott) a minor character in the comic who here gets a promotion to the film’s big villain which is only added to by the charismatic Michael Wincott which might be his most iconic role to date outside of voicing “Death” in “Darksiders 2” and as such has meant that its always been kind of disappointing to see him frequently not getting to play more of these kinds of roles in the films he’s made since.

Top Dollar is really the perfect sort of villain for this Gothic vision of Detroit as he carries himself with the right amount of theatricality, while his half-sister / lover Myca (Ling) helps to fill in the rules for the crow by adding the subtle element of mysticism without the action getting too fantastical, which really isn’t the easiest thing when your essentially dealing with a supernatural force of vengeance. At the same time the gang responsible for murdering Eric along with his fiancée lead by the Milton quoting arsonist T-Bird (Kelly) are all colourful and unique in their quirks which ultimately become the tools of their demise and really add to this “Sin City” style world which Proyas creates here and which he would carry across to the criminally underrated “Dark City”.

The soundtrack throughout really makes the film a time capsule of it’s release with Proyas compiling a suitably grungy soundtrack featuring the likes of Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against The Machine and the Rollins band. Nine Inch Nails also fittingly provide a cover of the Joy Division track “Dead Souls” tying the film further to the source material. Proyas also features live performances by both Medicine and My Life With The Kill Thrill Cult the later whose club performance soundtracks the boardroom shoot-out. The only real downside to the soundtrack is the use of “Burn” by the Cure which is not down to the track which itself perfectly matches Eric applying his harlequin styled face paint but rather the issues come with the fact its a choppily edited version which really stands out if your familiar with the track. Unsurprisingly the grunge / goth ascetic of the film combined with the soundtrack which still holds up now saw the film being often sold in record stores, which is certainly how I first came across it were it was displayed amongst the VHS copies of “REM: Road Movie” and “Nirvana Live Sold Out”.

A fantastic film which unfortunately broke the mould so that any of the attempts to expand the mythology through different souls either in the films which followed or the numerous spin off comics / books none came close to matching what Brandon Lee gives us with Eric more often than not characters being left feeling like they were in some way attempting to mimic his performance and or character. As such this remains a beautiful curiosity and one which like any actor who dies when they are just getting noticed if this would have been his breakout film or not. Sadly we will never know but it remains a fitting end note to go out on.

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