Back in the distant past of the mid 90s, there were exactly two film posters that ruled the walls amongst the heady intellectualists of A-level and first year university students. One was the classic Uma Thurman-fronted pastiche of Pulp Fiction, displayed to signify that you were sophisticated, with a touch of the retro-chic charm and danger of a 70s heroin overdose about you, and imply the student could more than likely quote all the movies that Quentin Tarantino errantly used the word “inspired” about. The other poster, normally positioned with far less lighting, was any of the myriad of designs for the 1994 Brandon Lee movie The Crow – they signified that you were serious, sensitive, and had a wardrobe that was 90% various shades of fading black. It also aligned you with the nebulous tribe of “alternatives” that found common ground and shared symbolism in one of the greatest movies about a comic book… one that everyone swore they had read the first time it was released.
The Crow carried instant cache as a cult film even before it was released, due to it sadly being Brandon Lee’s last film ever due to him dying in an onset accident whilst finishing making it. That he was the son of Bruce Lee, who had himself had his life cut tragically short through similar events on his breakthrough movie, and that the film touched on themes of death all added to the ambiance… as well as to the column inches and TV slots about what was a hopeful but still relatively obscure supernatural themed action adventure story of revenge. The coverage was further helped by the usage of, then groundbreaking, techniques and technology to finish the film after the main star had died. It was the perfect production tale of tragic, macabre, and fascination.
It was also the perfect movie score combination of music, at least for those of a rockist leaning, as it drew together some of the biggest names in the ill-defined “alternative” genre of the day. The Cure, Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails, Pantera, The Jesus And Mary Chain, plus others, were brought together for an almost perfect time capsule of the sound of things just off the beaten path. Not only did the music work brilliantly with the story and look of the movie, and add credence to its adaptation as James O’Barr had namechecked and quoted a number of the bands in the source comic, but it was a genuinely brilliant album in its own right, managing to get the top of the album charts on release and eventually being certified triple platinum. That various parts of the movie also looked like music videos you could see on MTV, and that the bands’ performances were integrated into the film itself, just added to the connection with the various factions of music scenes represented and, eventually, to the number of people in clubs wearing the crow makeup.
All this was topped off by it, mostly, being a damn fine movie. Brandon Lee, playing the gothy rocker Eric Draven that is brought back from the grave to avenge his fiancée, Shelly Webster, after their double murder, brought an amazing combination of pathos, presence, and physical performance to the role. Ernie Hudson carries the role of guide and expositionist Sgt Albrecht well, with a mix of understanding and confusion that is needed when helping someone you first knew through the size of their coffin, whilst Michael Wincott and David Patrick Kelly absolutely eat up the scenery playing the utterly despicable Top Dollar and T-Bird. The story itself is well managed, sticking with the core intro and second act of the comic, providing lines that are halfway between infinity repeatable quotes and half-forgotten song lyrics, letting lose better looking action and way more cool explosions than the budget really should have allowed for, and then rounding it all up with a warm and fuzzy ending after the hero defeats the baddy, atop an abandoned church, through the medium of his dead fiancée’s pain.
Given how “of it’s era” it was, it’s a miracle that it’s still as watchable as it is. Whilst its high-octane kung-fu action, angst ridden cod-goth supernaturalisms, and snappy, menacing one-liners never go out of fashion, clothing and art styles do. Thankfully it’s all so over-the-top the fashion sensibilities (and the relative stability of the “rocker look” over all these years), the wardrobe manages to just about avoid any giggling from the back and the visual and shooting style was so solid that you can see traces of it’s DNA in many contemporary films. The music has, obviously, aged more overtly, but it just about manages to hold on and the younger audience will (hopefully… please god!) give it a break as a demonstration of how their parents music could actually kick arse. But there are enough bits that they might need a little “historical context” to help them through. The most obvious place where this is needed is in all the bits where Brandon Lee was, now, very noticeably not present for the filming. The CGI moments stick out like sore thumbs, primarily because what was once cutting-edge cinema technology then is now something a cheap commercial wouldn’t touch. However, they are nowhere near as bad as the bits where film looping and stand ins were used. Not only do they create some of the most insane monologuing sequences from the bad guys, even though the actors do a valiant job with what they have, but seeing the same bit of footage used again-and-again creates an uncanny-valley of confusion, especially as the stylistic break is so extreme from the rest of the film.
Further not helping it appeal to a modern audience is the plot, specifically the third act. Whilst the first two thirds establish a logical set of rules and expectations of the power of The Crow, the third portion sees them thrown out of the window in favour of an easily understood “Save The Girl, Kill The Big Bad!” climactic showdown. Fun, but a gear change that’s just a bit hard to not comment on. This is on top of every woman needing to be saved, other than the Asian sister of Top Dollar who is written to be oh-so-exotically mental, with so little real agency offered. It’s amazing you don’t have people coming back from the grave to help random women change a car tyre. Throw in the key motivation being the avenging of the rape and murder of an almost literally angelic woman who doesn’t really say anything much and it’s going to have people wondering quite how alternative it actually is under all the black leather and indie band t-shirts. This doesn’t make it unwatchable but, much like the various haircuts on display, you will have to accept the few embarrassing parts are simply a fact of its time and not let them get in the way of the overall enjoyable experience.