The Crow” (1994) is more style than substance, as director Alex Proyas uses the comic book adaptation as a testing ground for his brilliant “Dark City” (1998). But the style is pretty great. The unnamed city patrolled by Eric Draven/The Crow (Brandon Lee) is filled with crumbling and seemingly abandoned architecture and perpetually wet streets. And when the back-from-the dead Crow reflects on the murder of himself and his wife Shelly (Sofia Shinas), he’s literally seeing red. Those flashes of red-tinged violence are hard to follow – as are the motivations of the bad guys, of which there are just enough to fill the running time of this revenge actioner.
The gothic-meets-Goth style is unlike anything we’ve seen in other superhero films. Tim Burton’s “Batmans” are more stylized, and the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” films – shot in Wilmington, N.C., like “The Crow” – are more set in reality. “The Crow” is somewhere in the middle. The city – which the web tells me is Detroit – seems empty except for the heroes and villains, and although that’s probably a budgetary constraint, it does emphasize the not-of-this-Earth nature of the narrative. The city steals the show, and I wonder if this happy accident inspired Proyas’ masterpiece four years later.
That’s not to say the people in “The Crow” – based on James O’Barr’s comic that launched in 1989 — are uninteresting. Lee, who tragically died in an accident while filming, gives a likeable normal-dude turn, which appealingly contrasts with the white face paint that marks him as a good-guy answer to The Joker.
Eric doesn’t entirely exist in the world of vengeance. Street urchin Sarah (Rochelle Davis) is around, skateboarding through the grimy alleys; Eric and Shelly took care of her, compensating for Sarah’s deadbeat mom. Mostly providing the audience-surrogate POV into this world, though, is police detective Albrecht (“Ghostbusters’ ” Ernie Hudson). I like how he stops for hot dogs with Sarah at a streetside diner. It’s like Deckard loading up on noodles in “Blade Runner,” except they never have to wait for their turn.
Mostly invincible, although he can feel some physical pain, Eric follows a magic crow around town to the locations of the bad guys who gang-raped and murdered his wife. He’s a vengeance killer and a detective, as each bad guy spills information leading to the next one.
I think the goal of the villains was to drive out the tenants of the building where Eric and Shelly resided, something like what “Daredevil’s” Kingpin would do. Since Shelly and Eric stand in their way, they killed them. They’re also like a darker version of the Foot Clan from “TMNT,” entirely operating on profits from crimes. Since Detroit appears abandoned, the logic doesn’t quite snap into place.
Making up for the shaky story is a bevy of entertaining performances. The baddies are led by Top Dollar, played by Michael Wincott, whose deep tones I recognized from “Alien Resurrection.” He’s probably the only actor who could have the equally stentorian-toned Tony Todd – as Grange – as a sidekick. Bai Ling, as Myca, slinks around as sexuality personified. Michael Massee — who has played baddies in many projects, including “24” — disappears into his role as Funboy, who is baffled to find The Crow back for revenge. Jon Polito is pawn-shop owner Gideon, who The Crow points out is among the sleaze who keep the criminal enterprise rolling.
Proyas slathers on another coating of style with a sequence of dark rock ’n’ roll at a dingy club – marking a rare occasion where “The Crow” shows an active populace. Eric was a rock singer when he was alive, so he’s familiar with these haunts. An alabaster-skinned singer who resembles Courtney Love (it’s Beth Thompson of Medicine) performs. Helping to seal the 1994 time capsule is a soundtrack including Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, Pantera and Stone Temple Pilots, along with several dark-rock bands from the previous decade.
Despite not grasping the precise scheme or nature of the villains – at one point I wondered if some of them are vampires – I found “The Crow” to be an engrossing adventure, mainly because of the visual style but also because of the steady stream of entertaining performances. The movie was somewhat salvaged from disaster after Lee’s untimely death, but I didn’t notice any obvious replacement actor or CGI cover-up.
It doesn’t make me want to immediately visit the three sequels or the TV series – this is a decidedly grim world, after all – but I suspect “The Crow” has gotten under my skin enough that I’ll someday check out the next film, at least.