Lionsgate // 1994 // 101 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // October 28th, 2011
"Victims. Aren't we all?"
The Crow rose to infamy due to the unfortunate on-set death of its star, Brandon Lee (Rapid Fire). In the wake of the tragedy, The Crow managed to stand on its own legs as a legitimate pop culture phenomenon of the 1990s, leaving a legacy of over $100 million dollars in worldwide box office receipts, three sequels, a television spin-off, an impending remake, and an endless supply of licensed merchandise in its wake.
Seventeen years after its theatrical release, The Crow continues to rank as one of the finest comic book adaptations ever filmed, as well as one of the jewels in the Bob and Harvey Weinstein crown of franchises. The film finally arrives on Blu-ray in a modestly priced upgrade which exceeds fan expectations.
Based on the comic strip by James O'Barr, The Crow finds aspiring rock star Eric Draven (Lee) rising from the grave a year after his death to take revenge on the four thugs (David Patrick Kelly, Twin Peaks, Angel David, Salt; Laurence Mason, Hackers; and Michael Massee, Lost Highway) who murdered him and his fiancée on the eve of their wedding day. Fueled by a supernatural invincibility and guided by a mysterious crow, Draven paints his face in black and white war paint and takes to the streets to make the wrong thing right. Standing in his way is Top Dollar (Michael Wincott, Alien: Resurrection), the gang's boss and crime lord of Detroit. As Draven hunts Top Dollar's gang down one by one, honest beat cop Sergeant Albrecht (Ernie Hudson, Ghostbusters) investigates Draven's vigilante crimes.
If ever there was a movie that belonged to its lead actor, The Crow is it. The term "star making" gets thrown around quite a bit, but Brandon Lee's breakout performance is nothing less than that. He commands the screen as the charismatic, haunted Eric Draven, a kind and sensitive artist whose tragedy transforms him into an undead avenger. Lee's physical abilities as a martial artist give the action sequences a lot of heft, allowing the supernaturally powered character spectacular sequences of John Woo-style gunplay, knife throwing, sword fighting, car racing, and roof jumping.
Unlike most action stars, however, Lee distinguishes himself a dramatic force to be reckoned with, turning in an emotionally wrenching turn that gives Draven multiple dimensions beyond a man thirsting for revenge. As Draven, Lee is grief stricken, romantic, somber, playful, creepy, and malicious. The smoothness and subtlety in which he shifts between these beats is nothing short of awe inspiring. That the actor never lived to see and enjoy the fruits of his efforts is made all the more heartbreaking by the sheer power and precision he brought to Eric Draven. If Dimension films ever get around to remaking this property, their star is going to have tremendous shoes to step into in the role. His shadow will forever be cast over any The Crow-related motion picture property, making the need for sequels, remakes, etc. seem all the more unnecessary.
Gushing over Brandon Lee's final performance aside, The Crow is equally deserving of praise for its stable of supporting actors. The film contains some of the finest villains ever to appear onscreen. The quartet of murderers and rapists that Draven targets are immensely interesting archetypes -- drug addicts, mental cases, murderers, and perverts -- as played by David Patrick Kelly, Michael Massee, Laurence Mason, and Angel David. Each actor competes to steal their respective scenes from one another and from Lee, approaching their characters with wildly ambitious zeal and charisma. Their "jolly band of pirates" is menacing, insipid, and oddly likeable despite their consistently heinous behavior.
Though memorable as a cast of villains, the four lackeys are only as interesting as the boss commanding them. As Top Dollar, Michael Wincott transforms a potentially ridiculous (coke snorting, samurai sword toting, rock star dressing, etc.) crime boss into a world-weary kingpin with enough pathos to merit his own movie. Wincott, one of the most criminally underused actors the last thirty years, creates a potentially iconic character in the gravelly voiced Top Dollar. Though he is appropriately overshadowed by Brandon Lee, Wincott stays neck-and-neck with him in each scene. When these titans finally clash in the film's final reel, it's hard not to sort of root for Wincott, despite his character's inherent evil. No matter how many times I've seen the movie, his performance continually inspires a little sympathy for the devil in him.
The rest of the supporting cast make strong impressions as well. Ernie Hudson brings his trademark humor and empathy to Albrecht, whose reluctant teaming with Draven brings out the humanity and sensitivity in both characters. Tony Todd (Candyman) nicely counterbalances said humanity as Grange, Top Dollar's stoic and professional right hand man. His baritone voce and subtle reactions to the extraordinary events surrounding him makes him a substantially bigger threat than the theatrical pirate-gang incurring The Crow's wrath. Bai Ling (Three Extremes) is her typically quirky self, sensuously bursting from her costumes and purring lines like, "I like the pretty ones" while removing her victims' eyes. Finally, Rochelle Davis (Hell House) makes a lasting impression as Sarah, Draven's surrogate daughter figure. She plays the character precociously but never preciously, giving the girl a hardened edge that, while mature, masks a quiet, childlike hope. That Davis never went on to do much else besides The Crow is a waste -- she shows so much potential here.
It must also be noted that The Crow is the movie that announced the arrival of Alex Proyas, a music video director whose expressionistic and kinetic visual style skirts the lines between blockbuster and art house filmmaking. While Dark City remains his film buff favorite (particularly of Roger Ebert) and I, Robot is his populist blockbuster, The Crow stands apart in Proyas' filmography as a perfectly conceived cinematic symphony of love, violence and death.
Long before Christopher Nolan made revisionist comic book adaptations chic,The Crow intelligently transcended genre trappings and clichés. As adapted for the screen by horror film writers John Shirley (The Specialist) and David J. Schow (Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) the script juggles countless disparate elements that shouldn't work together, particularly in terms of story. The plot plays close to the vigilante action formula but the film has the gothic tropes of a horror film, the mystical plot devices of a fantasy film, the emotional through line of a romantic drama and the high powered (and creatively costumed) protagonist of a superhero yarn. Proyas and company weave together the elements into a potent narrative made all the more powerful by infinitely quotable dialogue sprinkled throughout each scene. So much of screenwriting hinges on giving characters strong and distinct voices. That The Crow manages to do so with such a large ensemble of characters is a testament to the work of Shirley and Schow.
The marriage of styles, story, and character has frequently been imitated in comic book adaptations that followed, but never successfully duplicated (especially in the franchise's own sequels). This probably has something to do with Proyas' direction, which breathes life into the gritty, ultra violent style of O'Barrs source material while building a larger-than-world around it. This dark vision of Detroit is a gothic cityscape racked by constant arson, rain, and urban decay. As designed by Alex McDowell (who would return to the franchise for The Crow: City of Angels), this alternate reality metropolis is as much a star of the film as Lee -- a meticulously designed and beautifully filmed Gotham City injected with equal amounts of hard narcotics and post apocalyptic ruin. Like Proyas' follow-up film, Dark City, Eric Draven's Detroit is a graveyard of lost souls that he must exorcise to save his own. No matter how many times I watch the film, the detail and design of the setting always throws new surprises at me. Thanks to the upgraded 1080p transfer, the sprawl has never been more of a joy to absorb.
It's no surprise then that The Crow's Blu-ray debut is a definitive event for fans of the film. The new 1.85:1/1080p transfer is a major improvement over any DVD previously available. The blacks are very deep and the colors are strong, but the image is a little soft in comparison to other HD remasterings on the market. Given the low lit, gritty visual aesthetic of cinematography, this shouldn't surprise fans too much, though newcomers might be off put by the lack of crystal clarity in a film of this age.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is substantially stronger and clear. Graeme Revell's mournful rock score has never sounded better, and fans will be hard pressed to find a fuller sounding sample of The Crow's iconic industrial-rock soundtrack. Dialogue and effects also really pop, perhaps too much so at times. The level of clarity is so great that it becomes glaringly easy to identify fudged bits of Brandon Lee's post death ADR, as well as several canned punching and gunshot effects. Nevertheless, it's a great track whose flaws can be chalked up to imperfections in the film's initial post-production audio.
Bonus features are mostly ported over from Dimension's original Collector's Series DVD, which included deleted/extended scenes, a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette, a shockingly honest interview with creator James O'Barr, poster designs, storyboards, and theatrical trailers.
New to the set is a freshly recorded audio commentary with director Alex Proyas. It doesn't disappoint, giving a fresh perspective on the film including anecdotes regarding Lee, technical tidbits, and thematic connections to his overall body of work (especially Dark City). Fans of Proyas or The Crow will find the track to be an illuminating, substantially informative resource that alone makes the upgrade to Blu-ray worth the price.
However, it is worth mentioning that the Blu-ray does not port over the DVD's original commentary track with writer John Shirley and producer Jeff Most. Said track was a bit rambling but a very entertaining listen that, with Proyas' track, would have created a very complete behind-the-scenes picture of the making of The Crow. Completists looking to retain said track will want to hold onto their Collector's Series DVD for obvious reasons.
The Crow is, without a doubt, one of the finest films to come out of the '90s as well as one of the greatest comic book adaptations of all time. Emotionally engrossing and entertaining as hell, the film lives up to its cult following and Brandon Lee's legacy. Fans of the film have absolutely no excuse not to pick up the film on Blu-ray. The format breathes new vivid life into a timeless story of love, death, and justice.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Extended/Deleted Scenes
* Image Gallery
* Digital Copy