Appreciating The Crow

I have no idea how to review films – as will shortly become very obvious. However, in an effort to start writing again, I’m going to put down some thoughts. And why not start with something about why I just absolutely love The Crow? So here are 2000 words, probably rambling, largely unstructured, mainly stream of consciousness

(Oh, and if you think that I’m worrying about spoilers for a movie that has been out for 26 years… I’d look away now if I was you. In fact, I’m assuming that you have seen the film – if not, go and buy the thing on DVD, Blu-Ray, Prime Video or whatever. Then come back.)

In the beginning

The premise is adapted from the late 80’s comic of the same name. Every October 30 – Devils Night – the city is ablaze, set on fire by hoodlums, ruffians and various ne’er-do-wells. Four of those, T-Bird, Skank, Tin Tin and Funboy are in the employ of Top Dollar (Michael Wincott), the local crime boss and, um, property developer.

One particular Devils Night, the four break into the home of Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) and his fiancee, Shelley Webster, who have been organising for better treatment from their landlord – the aforementioned Top Dollar. As a result of their community spirited action, Eric is thrown out of a six storey window and Shelley beaten and raped. Shelley dies in hospital, watched over by Sargeant Albrecht (Ernie Hudson) who was hoping he would get some lead as to who did it.

One year later, Eric returns from the dead. Seemingly invincible and accompanied by a crow, with whom he has some sort of supernatural link, he begins to take revenge upon those who killed him and his fiancee.

Comic Store Guy

I often have to remind myself that this is adapted from a comic. Now, I really don’t like comics all that much. Or rather, the sort of Marvel / DC superhero rubbish. I’ve read the odd comic – mainly some Alan Moore stuff – but I really can’t be arsed. Thankfully the film comes from a time where comic book adaptations generally were to be avoided – or at least downplayed – as opposed to firehosed across every part of the media.

Because it doesn’t take its audience for granted, The Crow has to do old fashioned basic stuff like introducing characters and back story. I tried watching Avengers Assemble and the sheer amount of knowledge that you are supposed to take in to the film is ridiculous. There are something like twenty-three of those bloody things and the expectation is that you have to have sat through most of them just to understand what is going on, let alone give a damn.

The Crow has none of that, which means it has to explain and introduce and build. Thankfully it does this largely by showing, not telling, with Eric slowly discovering why he has returned, what he is capable of and what he has to do. Good old fashioned story telling in lieu of using reams of previous background material.

What The Crow is is a good old fashioned love story. Strip away the goth elements, the gun play set pieces – this is a tale about love. About how it can affect those around you, about how it can power you even from beyond the grave. Instead of our Indestructible Heroes defending the plant Thraxxx from the threat of Garfnagle, The Crow is small scale, personal, relatable. I think this is why struck a chord with so many at the time and continues to do so.

The Elephant Crow in the Emergency Room

Obviously no discussion of the film is going to avoid the tragic events surrounding the death of its star in a horrible on-set accident. For such a dark film about loss, such an event proves that if He exists, God really does have a bastard sense of irony. It isn’t heretical to say that Brandon Lee probably wasn’t ever going to win an Oscar, I don’t find him that charismatic or that outstanding an actor but was he the guy for this role?

Absolutely.

He looks right, he had the right amount of physical presence and he carries the emotional core of the film all the way through. He isn’t super cool, skating above everything as if it doesn’t matter in the manner of a Roger Moore Bond. He can’t deliver a joke. He brings anger, passion and vulnerability. Rewatching it recently, I especially liked the bits where he had to tell Sarah that he wasn’t hanging around, that he didn’t know what was going to happen when he fulfilled his purpose, but he knew that it meant leaving his friend for good, for a second time. You can see the sadness, but the resolution that this is what had to be done. Had Lee survived, I’m not sure that he would have bettered this role.

Everyman Ernie

On the Good Guy side of the coin, Ernie Hudson has to do a lot of heavy lifting. I always felt he got the shitty end of the stick as the Ghostbuster Nobody Remembers (never even getting on the poster). He’s a great actor of the everyman, in this instance being the main relatable character for the audience, guiding without too much exposition. Plus he gets to set up the ending by providing the method to dispatch the villain – I always thought that was a nice touch rather than a simple “we’ll say he hung around the hospital at Shelley’s death bed because we need to shows that this character is good”.

Hudson gets most of the memorable lines. It’s funny that The Crow has plenty of great dialogue, but isn’t particularly quotable. This is because the lines are in service of the story and the characters and fit like a glove, which means they don’t really work out of context. You can probably extract “Victims. Aren’t we all?” out of the script and use it at a pinch. “Can’t rain all the time” was clearly intended to be a tag line but “Well, at least he didn’t do that walking against the wind shit, I hate that.”?

Always have decent Bad Guys

Where The Crow really shines is in the way that the bad guys are fleshed out. They aren’t stereotypical violent psychopaths or street hoodlums who have no depth beyond the weaponry that they wield. It is clear that Top Dollar, Myca (Bai Ling) and Grange (Tony Todd, being quietly awesome) are Very Bad People, but they are intelligent and cunning with it. You can see them thinking about the situation, investigating, considering, planning. Grange discovers Draven upstairs at the bar but he’s leading with his brain, not pointing a weapon. Top Dollar borrows a gun to finish Gideon off and then hands it back with a very professional, very polite, “Thanks”. It might be a darkly amusing aside, but it fits the situation of them being partners.

It is a tragedy to me that Michael Wincott hasn’t had the career he deserves – or maybe he didn’t want to be pinned down playing bad guys. He’s charismatic, with a voice to die for and as I said, he bring intelligence to any role. He elevates a generic Head of Criminal Organisation role to become a believable Man with a Plan. It’s not a very nice Plan, it’s just business and he’s very good at doing business.

Even the hoodlums are given a depth, none more so than T-Bird (David Patrick Kelly). In the scene where he tells Top Dollar that Tin Tin “got himself perished”, Kelly brings a gutter level cunning to the conversation. You know that he knows he’s no match for the higher ups in the organisation, he knows his place and he’s happy with it. But you can tell why Top Dollar is happy to have him as the leader of that deadly gang of four. T-Bird is a rat bastard but a smart little rat bastard. He knows something isn’t right. Standard Hollywood cliche is for the character to go blundering in to some kind of situation for the hero to beat him but instead we get that little exchange between him and his boss, not of equals, but of respect and intelligence. And quoting Milton while strapped into a speeding car (on fire! Which explodes!) is definitely showing off, in a good way.

Even Skank gets a decent characterisation. Off his face most of the time, Angel David plays him as a hyperactive idiot. Not necessarily a bad person (though not a particularly good one) he’s just easily led by bad people and wants to be accepted. He gets to be relatable – when in front of Top Dollar and all the bigwigs, “I feel like a little worm on a big fuckin’ hook.” Who hasn’t ever been in that situation? Skank is fully aware of his role, of his limitations and that he’s fully deserved what is coming to him because he can’t think more than two minutes ahead.

Homage

It’s surprising how influential the film has been. For a start, the biggest wrestling character outside the WWE lifted his gimmick lock, stock and feathered friend from the film.

There is the argument that without The Crow you don’t get Heath Ledger’s Joker. I’m open to it.

This is the End

After Draven makes his way through the gang of four, I’d love to see the meeting where the end came up. “So, how do you kill off the bad guy? Shoot him? Toss him off a building? Blow him up?”

“Actually, I think I should do some kind of mental transfer.”

But that “30 hours of pain” moment is just perfect. Because like I said, this film, despite it’s dark trimmings, the shootouts, the explosions, is a tragic love story. It’s about a man who finds himself coming back from the dead and filled with anger and vengeance because of the pain of his loss. So no final quip, shocked freefall or huge explosion, the bad guy is going to die because he gets to feel the loss that the good guy has to live with. It’s about the power of emotion. That’s clever and – that word again – intelligent.

Then we get the coda, where Eric crawls to the grave of his dead wife to die for a second time. And she comes as an angel to take him to the afterlife. Call me an incurable romantic, but that’s the right ending. For Eric to simply disappear, having avenged his death but without being reunited… that feels off. Even as a fan of unhappy – or rather uncliched – endings, The Crow needed that moment where Shelley reappears. Otherwise, it’s a vital piece missing, like the end of The Shawshank Redemption without Zihuatanejo.

This is where The Crow differs so much from modern comic book movies. I’ve tried watching the Marvel Universe or whatever the hell it is called and I find it so gorramed hollow. An endless series of invulnerable characters having big long stupid fights featuring little more than CGI ping pong balls which only end because the plot demands it moves to the next big expositionary set piece. And because no-one can die in the MCU – heaven forfend that they aren’t around to appear as accompanying Funko Pops for the next sixteen movies of this crap – there is no peril. Shiny, loud, empty calories. Style over substance.

Not with The Crow. Smallish budget, a central cast of three, maybe four characters. Set over two nights, three or four locations. Very little fat – not that there was a chance for excess, obviously. Story starts, story continues, story ends.

(Apparently there are sequels. That can go right into a bin.)

End Credits

The Crow is by no means perfect. Bits of the acting are ropey, there is some judicious editing to cover up the loss of its star, the effects can be a little low rent.

I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack yet, which still sounds reasonably fresh for an early 90s film. Nine Inch Nails covering Joy Division and the only song from The Cure I really like.

Ultimately I love the film because it is smart and clever and a lot of thought and love has gone into it. Thought into the writing, thought into the characterisation, thought into the staging. I’d love to have been in the room at the moment when everyone involved realised “We’ve got something here” because you can feel that in every frame.

It’s a deeply personal story. Having done a little bit of research, apparently the original comic was written after the author lost his fiance to a drunk driver. You can tell that the loss depicted on screen is rooted in a real experience – it isn’t something that you see that often.

For me The Crow is lightning in a bottle. Individual cast and crew may do better work, but they’ll not do better work together. Every component fits precisely as it needs to and the result is something that I adored from the moment I saw it in the cinema.

TLDR; The Crow. Brilliant, innit?

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