Eric Draven and his fiance are brutally murdered on Devil's Night, a night when the henchmen of crime-boss Top Dollar traditionally indulge in wanton acts of violence and arson. A crow brings Draven's restless soul back from the dead and he sets out to wreak revenge upon his killers.
In March, 1993 The Crow had been shooting in Wilmington, North Carolina (now home of Dawson's Creek) for nearly two months. The production was on a tight schedule and strapped for cash. Allegedly, the completion bond company was in town. It was no surprise then that when a gun required some dummy bullets, instead of buying a set for the princely sum of $20, the props department asked a special effects technician to knock some up from a box of real ammunition. This he did by removing the bullets with a pair of pliers, emptying the shell of explosive and firing the percussion cap with a hammer before reinserting the bullet into the empty shell casing. While he was at it he made some quarter load blanks but somehow a bullet got reinserted into the blank's shell casing.
When the gun came to be mock fired, in the din of the scene no one heard the tell-tale slight popping sound as a missed percussion cap fired with just enough force to propel a bullet into the barrel, where it stuck. It stayed there until, in a later scene, the gun was prepped with full-load blanks (requested by Proyas for the muzzle flare they provided) and fired in the direction of Brandon Lee by actor Michael Massee (Funboy). Lee slumped to the ground as planned. Proyas called cut. But Lee didn't get up.
And so the making of The Crow ended in tragedy. Which is bleakly appropriate, because in the mid 1970s it began with one. James
O'Barr, a troubled young man with a childhood spent being shuttled between orphanages and foster parents, was enjoying one of the few happy periods in his life. For three years he had been going out with a girl he had met when he was 16 years old. By the late 70s they were engaged. Two weeks before her 18th birthday she was run down and killed by a drunk driver. The result was Eric Draven. "It just poured out," O'Barr says. "My character is able to return from the grave because some things just cannot be forgiven."
In fact Draven is a continuation of a cinematic archetype — the revengeful spirit returned to earth to set wrongs right, going back to Clint Eastwood's character in High Plains Drifter (1973) and Boris Karloff in The Walking Dead (1936). Alex Proyas, an Egyptian born but Australia-based commercials director was attracted to the melancholy material and considered it perfect for the rock-gothic visual style he favoured and had employed in his debut Spirits Of The Air, Gremlins Of The Clouds (1989).
Design-wise The Crow is like a comic book brought to life. While some critics ridiculed the stylised model work (which he reprised in
his subsequent movie Dark City) it is, in fact, entirely appropriate to the heightened, deliberately overcooked nature of the piece. Equally, the dialogue remains trapped, in tone at least, in comicbook speech bubbles. Unlike Superman or Tim Burton's Batman, there's no attempt to transform it into "naturalistic" movie dialogue. The Crow revels shamelessly in its pulpish roots, thus legitimising what would otherwise be over-ripe verbiage such as, "Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children," or the quoting of Edgar Allen Poe ("Suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door" ) and Milton's Paradise Lost ("Abashed the Devil stood, And felt how awful goodness is").
Draven's enemies aren't super villains like The Joker, but ordinary street scum with The Crow as a kind of supernatural vigilante. He takes no particular satisfaction in his killings, but more a resigned appreciation of destiny. "They're all dead," he remarks, conjuring haunting overtones of his own rapidly approaching demise. "They just don't know it yet."
Though both Christian Slater and River Phoenix had been offered the role, Proyas' final casting decision turned out to be a masterstroke. Embodying the new "sensitive" breed of action hero, later to provide rich pickings for the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Keanu Reeves, Lee not only delivers spectacularly in the martial arts sequences (he is co-credited as fight-choreographer) but spends much of the movie in black leather trousers, stripped to the waist and drenched with the perpetual Blade Runner-esque rain.
The question is, would The Crow be the cult movie it is today without Lee's untimely death? Possibly not, although interest in the character was strong enough to generate a dire sequel with Vincent Perez in the title role, as well as a TV series with chop-sockey C-lister Mark Dacascos. What is certain though is that, like River Phoenix and James Dean, Lee entered the grim pantheon of fast-lived good-looking corpses and thus gained a morbid immortality which no doubt adds to his popularity among his adolescent, angsty fan base. It's a popularity significantly reinforced by Lee's eerie musing on mortality during his final screen interview just days before his death. "Because we do not know when we will die we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well," he said. "It all seems limitless."
In all, it's a satisfyingly gloomy world-view, with no room at all for such fripparies as forgiveness or redemption. Never has overwhelming grief looked quite so, well, sexy.