Almost everyone who's at all interested in show business knows that Brandon Lee, the star of The Crow, was killed last year in a shooting accident on the set of that film. It's hard to imagine a movie worth dying for--The Crow certainly isn't, striking though much of it is--but there can be little doubt that this misfortune will confer the status of minor Hollywood legend upon the hapless younger Lee, and further magnify the major Hollywood legend of Brandon's father, Bruce Lee, the beloved chop-socky star who also died young.
The grim ironies in this case just kept coming. Last year, we had a quite entertaining Bruce Lee biopic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, in which the elder Lee (played by Jason Scott Lee) was depicted as a man haunted throughout his life by an armored death spirit. In a late dream sequence, while grappling with this specter, he screamed to his little son, "Run, Brandon, run!" The film was made before the younger Lee's death but released not long after, and thus the scene had an extra dimension of eeriness.
But it doesn't stop there. The Crow itself, an extremely violent fantasy set in some squalid, Blade Runner-ish future or alternate world, is a distinctly morbid piece of work. Lee plays the hero, a rock musician who has returned from the dead, with the handsome fowl of the title as his spirit guide, to take revenge on his own and his fiance's murderers.
Lee's character, whose name is Eric, is an invincible avenger, and in the course of dispatching the various slavering baddies--minions of a kinky gang lord named Top Dollar (Michael Wincott)--he's shot repeatedly, and each time the wounds simply close up and he's left unharmed. Pretty freaky.
If The Crow were just a lame zero (like Lee's earlier star vehicle, Rapid Fire), it would gain little additional interest from the audience's knowledge of Lee's circumstances--it would probably just add an extra layer of disgust to the annoyance one normally feels at a bad movie. But the film, based on a comic-book series by James O'Barr, has moments of fairy-tale power and dark, pop-Cocteau romanticism. It's no classic, but it has a jolt here and a tingle there.
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The director, an Australian named Alex Proyas, is a music-video veteran, and it shows in the jazzy editing and the chiaroscuro photography (by Dariusz Wolski). It's a slickly appropriate style for this material.
The plot is utterly conventional (though occasionally disjointed, perhaps from postaccident reconstruction). The dialogue is often trite, and the characters--a street urchin, a nice-guy cop, a sleazy pawnbroker, etc.--are stock, though generally well-played (by Rochelle Davis, Ernie Hudson and Jon Polito, respectively). Michael Wincott, who brought a much-needed touch of high villainy to Disney's recent The Three Musketeers, does the same as the main heavy here, and Bai Ling is startling as his sidekick/half sister/lover.
Lee's performance is the real grabber, however. In his other star turn, he seemed petulant and unpromising, but he took to this juicier part, and his spookily beatific melancholy gives the film an otherworldly feel which would have been commanding even if we didn't know what we know about it.
I don't mean to be flip about Brandon Lee's death--it was a sad, wretched calamity for his friends and family, and it would be far better, of course, if the film had never been made. But since it was, one can hardly be sorry that it was released, and there's no use pretending that what happened on its set doesn't intensify the experience of this already atmospheric film. If one must live fast and die young, one might as well leave a beautiful myth.