Thursday, June 30, 2011

Completist Guide to The Crow series (1993-2005) (Part 1)

The Crow (1994)

There's little to write about
The Crow that hasn't been written before. So much focus has been placed on the tragic death of lead actor Brandon Lee, shot by a faulty blank bullet, that the actual film is rarely viewed without putting it in this context. At times, it feels like the film is just a whirlpool of tragedy both real and fictitious. The original comic book was written by James O'Barr following the death of his fiancee at the hands of a drunk driver, it's oft quoted that this was his motivation for writing the book – an aching need to see justice performed.

I think everyone knows the plot of The Crow by now. Brandon Lee plays Eric Draven a rock musician who is murdered along with his fiancee by a gang of utterly vile ruthless thugs with absolutely no redeeming features. One year later he is brought back to life to take down the thugs for good being guided by a large black crow. Essentially, it's Death Wish played out on a stylish Gothic version of Detroit.

The look of this film is stunning. Everything is just so rich without ever coming across as cartoonish. There's a lot of great miniature work as well, with shots of the crow flying over the city. I like that director Alex Proyas didn't just use real aerial shots of Detroit at night, he wanted the city to be a character itself. Also, much like Tim Burton's Batman the film strives for a sort of timeless look and feel.

Brandon Lee is great in the lead role. It's a shame that we didn't get more films from him because this, and his earlier work, show that he had a genuine charisma that would have propelled him to a-list status had he lived. Michael Wincott is also brilliant as Top Dollar, the lead villain. Both actors really get to cut loose playing their respective roles.

The story only vaguely follows the plot of the original comic. A fair bit was changed. The comic is, if you can picture it, even more graphic and dark than the film. I think it's nice that film interprets the mood and puts its own spin on things. Eric isn't a rock star in the comic and he doesn't duel a top a cathedral with Top Dollar.

Reportedly the script had to be reworked following Lee's death but I don't think all that much was changed from the shooting script. The most obvious bit where he's missing
is when he returns to his apartment after rises from the grave, everything's shot in first person POV.

All in all, The Crow is a so
lid film and deserves to be remembered a seminal film.

Score by Graeme Revell

I'm not going to talk about the soundtracks for each of these films just the scores. The soundtracks always seemed like a bit of random afterthought, collecting
some popular rock/grunge songs of the time and sticking them on a CD. The Score though, by Graeme Revell, I do want to talk about. It's a brilliant almost iconic score, perfectly capturing the melancholic tone of the film and without it the film wouldn't be the same.

Classic quote:

Eric Draven: Can't rain all the time...

The Crow: City of Angels (1996)

Where to go when your lead actor (and the fictional character he played) are dead? “There is another.” That was the tag line they put on the poster for City of Angels. I've sort of got a soft spot for this film because it came out around the time I was really getting into comic books. Every time I went to my local comic shop the place was plastered with posters and merchandise for this film.

Proyas didn't come back for the sequel and the reins were passed to Tim Pope, a british music video director. The story picks up w
ith Sarah, Eric's teenage friend, several years later now living in an almost desolated Los Angeles as a tattoo artist. The city is run by Judah Earl, a vicious drug king who orders the execution of an innocent man and his son. Again, one year later the man, Ashe, comes back to kill the gang who killed him. Sarah helps him along the way being somewhat psychically linked.

Once again, and this becomes a recurring theme in all the Crow films, the production was troubled somewhat. The original script by David Goyer (who would go on to script the Blade series and Batman Begins) had a oddly downbeat ending that was filmed but the producers looking to end the film on a more upbeat note and fit the same structure as the original re-edited it. This in turn backfired when fans and critics called the film a shallow rehash of the original.

Now this film is a failure (and it showed at the box office) but at the same time it's a very interesting failure. There's a lot it does right. Pope gives the film a great visual. Again, he uses miniatures for the city and blankets all his sets in a claustrophobic yellow haze. French actor Vincent Perez does an over the top performance as Ashe that sort of works in a baroque way. You can tell at time he's struggling with the dialogue.

Iggy Pop plays one of the gang members and, as should be expected, gives a cra
zed performance. There's a great scene where he's sitting on a motorcycle and sees Ashe at the other end and starts yelling “You think I'm afraid” over and over until it almost sounds like he's singing it.

The real problem lies in the attempt to tie it in with the sequel. Sarah really has no reason to be in the film. I appreciate when they carry over characters between films but in this case there's no more story to tell. No one left the original film thinking “Man, I wonder what happens to that teenage girl.”

Also, as is often the case with the Weinsteins, this film suffered from studio interference and it seems as though the funding on the special effects were cut short. The final sequence particularly has some appalling CGI. It seems this happened with a lot of the Crow films, the funding was cut suddenly the editor had to put out a rough cut rather than a polished movie.

One thing a lot of people have a problem with how perverse this fil
m is. But when comparing it back to the original comic it isn't a massive leap. Pope has a great style and it's a shame he retreated back to music videos after this. He really knows how to create compelling images such as when Ashe first rises from the water and the twisted Day of the Dead parade. This is a bleak and strange film that deserves viewing at least once.

by Graeme Revell

Revell returned to do the score for City of Angels an
d he keeps a lot of the motifs of the original film. In general though the score is filled more with an earthy tribal sound that fits pretty well with the oppressive tone of the film. He also does a nice reworking of the central Crow theme as a song called 'Believe in Angels' with Heather Nova doing vocals which isn't as bad as it sounds on paper.

Classic quote:

Ashe Corven: Do you know what they call a gathering of crows? Curve? A murder. A murder of crows. Think about it.

The Crow: Stairway to Heaven (TV series 1998)

Stairway to Heaven
is a real curio in the Crow canon. Following the disappointing box office of City of Angels the decisi
on was made to take try and turn the Crow myth into a weekly TV series. Stairway only lasted one season before it was cancelled, though not due to lack of audience, apparently it was down to Universal television buying out Polygram productions and not having faith in the show.

The series, created by Bryce Zabel who also did the X-Files rip-off Dark Skies, retells the story of Eric Draven from the original movie but makes a number of changes in both story and tone to fit the TV audience. Eric is still murdered along with his fiancee but rather than return to murder his killers, he comes back just to “see them brought to justice” (ie. arrested) and then continues to hang around solving other peoples' problems until he can be let into heaven or whatever. The plot of the episodes mostly play out along the lines of The Incredible Hulk or Highway to Heaven.

I've got to admit it's quite strange that they chose such a dark violent film to base th
is TV series off, but then again, it's not unheard of Robocop, one of the most violent films ever was turned into a kid friend show in the early 90s, as was Highlander. But in this case they've had to make so many changes that it only superficially resembles The Crow. For example, Eric's iconic face irony clown make up is now magical thing that appears on his face when he gets angry (read: massive similarities to Incredible Hulk TV show). At all other times he just looks like a regular guy not a tortured undead vigilante. Also, his fiancee Shelly, rather than being a figure only shown in flashback, is regularly featured in the show, shown to be in Limbo waiting for Eric (in the show Limbo's represented as an ordinary looking forest, shot with a purple filter).

Mark Dacascos is given the poison chalice of taking on Brandon Lee's iconic role. He's actually not a bad fit being that he has a vague resemblance of Lee and has a similarly disarming demeanour. Strangely, the series decides to make Draven not only a rock musician but also an highly proficient martial artist. It's just one of a number of strangely off beat details that never really cohere. Dacascos is a great martial artist though (check out Drive (1997) to see his best work) and the series make a good choice of bringing back a couple of the actors from that film – John Pyper-Ferguson does a good job of channelling Michael Wincott as Top Dollar and Kadeem Hardison plays the Skull Cowboy (a figure from the original comic that was cut from the film).

As I said this isn't a mini series with a complex plot, it's a syndicated TV show so each episode basically stands alone. Frequently Draven teams up with Detective Albrecht (Marc Gomes taking over from Ernie Hudson) to solve a crime or help someone out. It's formulaic but not completely unenjoyable. The episodes are breezy and energetic but rarely memorable.
The show was shot in Canada, like a lot of shows at the time, and everything's quite flatly shot, a complete world away from the stylish original film. There's also some very bizarre episodes such as 'The People vs Eric Draven' where the undead Eric is arrested and put on trial for the suspected murder of his fiancee or 'Never Say Die' where a group of Russian mobsters unleash the spirit of Rasputin. One last thing I've got to get off my chest is why the hell did they call it Stairway to Heaven I get the Zeppelin reference but that is one of the cheesiest titles I've ever heard.

All in all, this isn't a terrible show, it's just a weird one. A hybrid of the A-Team and The Crow. It almost feels like Zabel came up with an idea for a TV show about a man who returns from the dead and then realised it sounded too similar to The Crow so bought the rights and just reworked a few bits to make it fit.

(Part 2 of the Completist Guide to The Crow series coming soon...)

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