Thursday 1 March 2012

The Crow (1994)

Director: Alex Proyas
Star: Brandon Lee

Director Alex Proyas established himself with The Crow and would still have done had Brandon Lee not died during shooting, pun not intended. That was an unfortunate accident, not a curse, that has led to the film being remembered for bad reasons when there are so many good ones to choose from. It stands up well today, almost two decades on, in shrinking company. It's notably less cartoonish than Tim Burton's Batman or Edward Scissorhands, it's darker than Sam Raimi's Darkman and Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it's more gothic than Bram Stoker's Dracula. Perhaps it benefitted from being a nineties film as the eighties dated a lot quicker. Certainly it sits well after the goth era, a little after grunge and a little before emo. Had Proyas not done anything else, he would still be remembered, but adding Dark City to his resume four years later was enough to cement his reputation enough that films like I, Robot couldn't undo it.

We open stylishly on Devil's Night, a busy one. The fire effects have aged, the vision hasn't. As the camera swoops like a crow between the buildings, a child's voice tells us a legend: that when someone dies a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead, that sometimes something so bad happens that the soul can't rest and that sometimes the crow can bring that soul back again, to right the wrongs done. And as we glide into a garret through a broken rose window we realise that something that bad has just happened right here. Eric Draven is dead and Shelly Webster won't be too far behind him. They were a young couple very much in love and soon to be wed, but it was all taken away, violently and emphatically. Something so bad, right. Well, it's hardly surprising to find what happens next, especially as the crow flying around isn't just an image, it's an omnipresent leitmotif. Yep, Eric Draven comes back from the dead to wreak his revenge.

Just as that turn of events is entirely obvious, there's little else here that will come as a surprise, at least as far as the story goes. We find out through flashbacks and with a little detective work who did the deed and why, and we watch the resurrected Eric Draven, now sporting memorable black and white face paint, work his way through them to who is ultimately responsible. This is a simple and inevitable story, which unfolds capably and stylishly through a poetic and elegantly tortured script. While it's all sourced from James O'Barr's comic book series, written as a means of coming to terms with the loss of his girlfriend, killed by a drunk driver, it was adapted freely by David Schow and John Shirley, two names made famous in print not on celluloid. They wrote a very literate picture. I wouldn't expect Detroit thugs to quote Paradise Lost before they die, but it's great to hear. We get Poe too, Thackeray and even President Andrew Jackson.

Schow and Shirley go all out with the gothic aura, which is perhaps overdone but if it is I don't care. There's lots of darkness, lots of rain, lots of throwbacks to the past in the props, costumes and weaponry. Proyas originally wanted to shoot the whole film in black and white to mimic the comic book source, with a little colour only in the flashbacks, but this was 1994, over a decade before Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, so the studio said no. Hollywood didn't understand this sort of material in 1994, as highlighted by the studio's original intention to make this as a musical with Michael Jackson. Only when Proyas became attached and Brandon Lee took the lead role did it start to form into the more serious shape we know today, and Proyas drove the look to be as monochromatic as possible, starting with the iconic makeup and working outwards. Schow and Shirley added the literacy in dialogue that isn't realistic but is gloriously poetic.
It doesn't hurt that a number of scenes have unintended overtones given the real life events that came to overshadow the picture itself. As everyone and their dog know, Brandon Lee died during production, shot by a dummy bullet. What they won't realise until they watch the film is the irony in his beginning the film dead as a character and ending it dead as an actor, having spent much of the time in between showcasing his immortality. It's impossible not to feel the unintended prescience when his character, Eric Draven, puts his hand against Funboy's gun and asks him to shoot; when the bad guys laugh about Russian roulette; and especially when we realise that the band Draven led before his untimely death is called Hangman's Joke. It's dark irony, to be sure, but we wonder how much fate could be tempted in a gothic movie about love and death. He was 28 and planning to be married a week after filming completed. Life imitates art.

Even had Lee not died during production, he would still be the focal point. He was truly magnetic as Eric Draven and you can't tell me that Heath Ledger's famous portrayal of the Joker wasn't an homage to this film, not only sourced from Lee's portrayal but with smeared makeup taken from a couple of other characters too. Lee's work here certainly stands up a lot better than anything done beforehand in films like Laser Mission and Showdown in Little Tokyo. Perhaps it's inevitable given the circumstances but he seemed tailor made for this role. He's a little over the top, a little dramatic, but surprisingly only a little, and he provides some of the grounding too. The point at which the film found power for me was when he squeezed an addict's arm, the morphine drips back out and she returns to reality. This is a subtle scene indeed but a very powerful one. Here is where we realise that this isn't just what detractors might sneerily call a 'comic book movie'.

Unfortunately the inevitable focus on Lee means that the other actors are unjustly overlooked. There are a number of them that deserve praise. Michael Wincott is like Christian Slater playing Peter Murphy as Top Dollar, the villain of the piece, lording it over his city domain with a sexy Bai Ling wrapped around him, the ever looming presence of Tony Todd at his side and a bevy of thugs at his beck and call. He's the most overtly gothic of all with his antique furniture, his secret arsenal and his fetish for eyeballs. The mountain of cocaine is a little more modern but it fits. He's a very quiet villain, utterly in control. Bai Ling is delightfully freaky as his lover and half-sister, demonstrating in her first notable US role the beginnings of characteristics she'd carry into many others. Todd is a thoughtful bodyguard and capable opponent, carrying a sort of unflappable lawyer vibe, tough and powerful but content to remain in the shadows until needed.
None of those roles are deep, but the actors playing them are very watchable and they do all that is needed of them. Outside Top Dollar's base, however, a couple of other actors were gifted with glorious roles that are better than those they usually get but which they thoroughly deserve to have a shot at. One is Jon Polito, who plays Gideon, a sleazy pawnshop owner with a mouth so fast that he answers back almost before he's given his cues. He gives a peach of a performance as a small player who thinks he's a big one and never fails to find an opportunity to dig himself deeper into a hole. The other is Ernie Hudson, so often just the other guy in a movie, who gets a lot of opportunity here to shine as a cop busted back to the beat for sticking his nose into places it wasn't wanted. Even when being berated by his boss he's the better man and he manages to combine a down and dirty approach with honesty and purity. Both are great portrayals.

That leaves 14 year old Rochelle Davis, who can't match the performances of her experienced colleagues but does a capable job nonetheless. Whether due to Lee's death or not, she didn't act on screen again for 15 years, returning to play a detective in the 2009 horror movie, Hell House. She gets a deceptively important role, because Sarah initially seems to be a fringe character but really isn't. She's from a broken home and Eric and Shelly took care of her. To emphasise that she's a street kid, we don't see her anywhere else for the entire first half of the movie. We only see her home halfway through when her mother, that drug addict Draven helps to quit, decides to start trying and attempts to figure out how her daughter eats her eggs. Sarah's fortunes are the pivot of the movie and they mirror the rest of the story. The first half sees things get worse, the second half has them get better.

I'd seen The Crow before, though close to initial release, and watching it again left me pleasantly surprised at how well it stands up. The music is old school goth, but often translated forward a decade or so through contemporary bands covering older material. There's a Joy Division song, for instance, but it's performed by Nine Inch Nails. The cinematography is ambitious, exceeding what the effects can back up, but fascinating to watch, especially when things are in motion. The car chases alternate car level with crow level and the perspectives appropriately mirror what we might see on the pages of a comic book. No wonder that even with the death of the film's star, it spawned three feature length sequels and a TV series, none of which I've yet seen. They aren't as well regarded but they do contain many names I'm intrigued to see in this sort of world. I'm overdue in checking them out and seeing if there are any embers that can still raise fire.

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