THE CROW (1994)
Director: Alex Proyas

Movies based on comic books are nothing new. Most of the time, the source material is well-known and cherished among comic readers. When you see Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, or X-Men, you automatically connect them to comics. But occasionally, a movie comes along that's based on a comic so underground, you probably didn't even know that the comic existed. Such was the case with The Crow. Created by James O'Barr in 1989 as a way to cope with the death of his girlfriend, The Crow is a tale of sorrow, revenge, and ultimately, a love that transcends death. An underground success in the comic world, the film adaptation became not only a cult classic among the Goth subculture, but also as a farewell to a promising young actor cut down before his prime.

THE CROW (1994)We begin with some brief narration to set up the world we are about to enter. People believed that when someone dies, a crow would carry their soul to the afterlife. But sometimes, the soul carries a great sadness that refuses to let it be at peace. And in some rare instances, the crow will give the soul a new life, so that it may right a wrong. With the exposition out of the way, we open in what looks like Detroit on October 30, known as "Devil's Night" because of the annual wanton acts of violence and arson that plague the city every Halloween Eve. Would-be rock star Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) and his fiancée Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas) plan to get married the next day, but four gang members break into their apartment and attack them. Eric is shot and thrown from a sixth-story window, while Shelly is brutally raped and beaten to death. Because of the senselessness of their deaths and the strength of their love, a mysterious crow resurrects Eric exactly one year later. With the crow as his guide, he exists as a shadowy avenger, refusing to rest in peace until he makes the four gang members and their leader (Michael Wincott) pay for their sins.

The Crow is the kind of movie you'd think would appeal solely to disillusioned teenagers that spend all day listening to Nine Inch Nails and looking like Robert Smith from The Cure, but many of the movie's underlying themes are universal. Love, death, and revenge are all things we can relate to in some form. While the "guy gets revenge for a loved one's murder" thing has been done in more movies than one can count, this one is a little bit different. For one thing, the hero is already dead. That's a pretty big deal, wouldn't you say? But seriously, the most important difference is the movie's tone. Movies like The Punisher and Kill Bill: Volume 1 were all about the action. Stuff goes boom, people get killed, that's pretty much it. What separates The Crow from movies like that is the giant melancholy cloud that hangs over the movie. The movie is so sad, like someone made a movie about having their heart crapped on. It looks like it's just another slick action movie, but appearances can be deceiving. There's a lot of emotion under the surface: Sadness and heartache, anger, and an intense love that refuses to let the confines of death stand in its way. The film's visual style is a testament to the hard work of director Alex Proyas and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. The movie looks much like a mutant cross between comic books, rock videos, and 1940s film noirs. With odd architecture and effective lighting, it's as if the work of Edgar Allen Poe jumped onto celluloid. And they've apparently done homework from other genres, because the shootout that concludes the second act looks like something from a John Woo movie. The soundtrack is also great, almost becoming a character of its own. The use of various songs enhances a lot of scenes, as does the score by Graeme Revell. Holy crap, is Revell's score awesome. It's just absolutely beautiful in its gloominess.

The script, written by David Schow and John Shirley, could have used a few touchups. The film is most effective when there's little to no dialogue, when it just lets the music and imagery tell the story. A lot can be communicated through just the soundtrack and an actor's expressions and movements, folks. It's also like they tried to lighten the movie a little bit with some comic relief, much of which just seemed forced and unnatural. Fortunately, that's barely a minor complaint, so it's no big deal. Meanwhile, the acting is awesome. The late Brandon Lee is very obviously the highlight of the cast, conveying his character's varying emotions excellently. The part was extremely well written, and he makes it better. Despite having a minor role in retrospect, Michael Wincott was fun as Top Dollar, the crime kingpin that ordered the deaths that set up the movie. Tony Todd (who appears as Top Dollar's sidekick Grange) is also fun to watch, but he's awesome in everything he's in. Also getting a thumbs-up from me are the actors who play the four thugs: David Patrick Kelly ("T-Bird"), Angel David ("Skank"), Laurence Mason ("Tin-Tin") and Michael Massee ("Funboy"). Each of them take the obviously one-dimensional characters and give them more depth than was scripted. Good job, guys. My biggest complaint about the acting is the performances of Ernie Hudson (as Draven's police officer buddy Albrecht) and Rochelle Davis (as Draven's perpetually-bummed friend Sarah). I like Ernie Hudson, but not even he could save this stinker of a role. I don't have a problem with the character existing, but it's just so horribly written that Ernie can't help. And Rochelle Davis gives a wooden, stilted performance, but I can forgive that because she was only 12 or 13 when the movie was filmed.

As has been said in a few other reviews, The Crow could be called the horror genre's "Hamlet." It's a grim, action-filled tragedy, and if you haven't seen it, you're missing out. The movie is astounding, and any flaws stumbled upon are forgivable. Sadly, there's also an unfortunately ironic subtext to the movie. For those of you who don't know, Brandon Lee was accidentally shot and killed by a malfunctioning prop gun while filming a scene with Michael Massee near the end of production. Lee's death was so profound, Rochelle Davis left acting permanently, and Crow creator James O'Barr gave every cent he earned from the movie to charities. And in his death, he had many similarities with his character. Like his character, Lee was only days away from his own wedding when he died. And like his character, he seemingly returned from the grave a year later upon The Crow's release to score a hit movie. And like his legendary father Bruce, his life was cut short before his full potential could be realized. Brandon had "star in the making" written all over him, but if he had to go, fate couldn't have picked a better film to let him say goodbye. Five stars, for sure.

Final Rating: *****