Back in 1996, Sting (the professional wrestling legend Steve Borden, not the crap singer), dumped the surfer boy look and returned to battle Hollywood Hulk Hogan’s New World Order sporting corpse paint, long hair, a black trench coat and a baseball bat. It was one of the best angles in the modern era of pro-wrestling. It was also ripped off from one of the coolest superhero characters ever created, the avenging wraith, Eric Draven. The Crow. A film in which the story behind the film is more tragic than the fiction.
At the end of March 1993, Alex Proyas (he of the recently and rightfully panned Gods of Egypt) was helming The Crow, the film that was to make the son of the legendary Bruce Lee, a star in his own right. Lee’s Draven was supposed to be shot by Michael Masse’s character, while attempting to save his girlfriend Shelly (Sofia Shinas). Unfortunately, money was running out, the set’s firearms expert had been sent home, and the crew decided to craft their own dummy rounds rather than expending money on standard commercial dummy rounds commonly used in filming. Rounds to simulate a loaded gun without legitimately blowing a big, bloody hole through anyone!
The lack of an expert meant that the gun was not checked before the fatal scene was filmed. A blank round, with primer and gunpowder was fired off…with one of the homemade dummy bullets trapped in the barrel. Lee was hit at close range, legitimately shot and died in surgery six hours later. He was 28 years old. A star was blasted out of the sky just at the moment of its birth.
In some macabre way, Lee’s death only added to the mystique and poignancy of The Crow. The story of a rock star, brutally murdered along with his fiancée after a home invasion by a gang of thugs, who returns as a supernatural avenger to exact a bloody revenge on the dark, rain-sodden streets of Detroit.
Obvious comparisons are to be drawn with Frank Miller’s Batman. In many ways The Crow is the sort of film many had hoped Tim Burton’s Batman would be. Dark, brooding, gritty but theatrical without lapsing into pantomime as Burton’s Batman films did. In many ways, Draven is a more sympathetic character, driven not simply by revenge but love for othes, as opposed to Bruce Wayne, who at times, resembled Middle America’s, vigilante, mucky dream. Much of that is driven by Brandon Lee’s stellar display. Powerful, empathetic and displaying a powerful magnetism and a rare screen presence. There is no doubt watching him brooding around Detroit’s squalid, smoky streets and black rooftops that had he lived, he would have become one of Hollywood’s biggest and most bankable stars.
Oddly though, Proyas’ adaptation of James O’Barr’s comic book series owes more to Robocop (1987). A dystopian vision of Detroit mirroring the city’s real life post-industrial decay. The mobs running wild and rough-shot over the beleaguered citizens with the police being shown as either powerless in the face of or corrupted by the city’s underbelly. Watching the film in 35mm at Manchester’s AMC was quite an experience. However, there is a caveat to this, in digital resolution the film loses its amazing visual aesthetic, which twists Detroit into something otherworldly. It removes the magical aura and ends up simply looking mucky and murky like the recent Warner Brother’s DC comics adaptations, which bored the tits off many of us.
What also makes The Crow interesting are the film’s flaws. The story’s villains are a little too silly to be believable. Michael Wincott’s gangland boss ‘Top Dollar’, who resembles a member of a Deep Purple tribute band, never conveys to us how reducing all of Detroit to smouldering cinders will actually make him or his rogues gallery any money. Isn’t that the point of organised crime after all? The film is also a little bloated, with the climax dragging on for about fifteen minutes longer than it needed to and things become a little too melodramatic for their own good. Nevertheless, in comparison to Batman Vs Superman this was positively a brisk 100 metre sprint.
The very ending of the film however is brave and also something of a tribute to Lee (the final eight days of shooting were finished three months after his death). A poignant, definitely close to a bold and imaginative comic book adaptation, which, had more care been taken, would have birthed a genuine superstar.