Brandon Lee's 'The Crow' is very good at being dark, loud, violent

"The Crow," the death-haunted, mega-violent, pulpy, vigorous final film of Brandon Lee, may not qualify as much of a monument to a lost life -- what film could? -- but it's a hell of a movie.

It's one of those strange numbers that can only be classified as being of a piece, meaning that however you feel about the value of what it sets out to do, you must admit that it does it brilliantly.


And here's what it sets out to do: to compress into one seamless threnody the sensibilities of film noir, urban gothic and slam-bang comic-book energy while sounding chords of nihilism and cynicism and very loud rock 'n' roll. It may may not improve you, but it will make you a believer.

Set in some decaying urban hell that may be RoboCop's Detroit, where armed gangs prowl the alleyways and common people are driven inside to merely survive, it follows a very simple narrative line: A dead rock singer crawls out of the grave one Devil's Night, his face chalky as a crumbling bone, and hunts down the men who, a year ago, on the same Devil's Night, killed his girlfriend and himself. His one ally is a big black bird, flappity-flapping along and serving as recon scout.


Director Alex Proyas, a veteran (is this a surprise?) of the music video game, isn't interested in explanations: This is a dark fable set in an unreal world with only passing connection to our own, and anything can happen. Thus it is that Lee's Eric Draven is pure sprite of spite, avatar of vengeance, as single-minded as the shark in "Jaws." Who he was before isn't revealed, not really; what he'll become next isn't either. What he is now is the whole movie: an avenger with a highly developed sense of humor and sadism and good teeth.

Make no mistake: The movie's about killing and little else. It's essentially a collection of murders artistically photographed in a key of escalating irony as Draven knocks off the guys who did the job and penetrates the conspiracy that made the job necessary.

Draven isn't really a character so much as an icon. The very concept in some sense isolates him from the audience: The makeup robs the actor of his most valuable weapon, his skin; his eyes, above little painted tears, are also difficult to read; he's almost masked. Lee must make do on sheer body charisma.

Thus the movie's central value and its most melancholy tone -- Lee's star presence. It's amazing and it's tragic. In many ways, I think he would have been a greater star than his father; it's hard to imagine Bruce Lee transcending the death of the martial arts genre that he had all but invented. There was something so mesmerizingly combative about him, so incredibly intense. But he really had no gift of repose, not much charm; he was pure fighting machine.

Brandon had a much wider range. He was something his father never managed: Likable. I first noticed him as the No. 2 guy to the hulking and dreary slab of mute beef called Dolph Lundgren in something named "Showdown in Little Tokyo." Lee blazed out of it, seemed to crackle; he stole the picture. Next came "Rapid Fire," not nearly as good as it could have been and a disappointment. "The Crow," however, should have been his ticket to the big time. Unfortunately, owing to stupidity with a firearm, a dreadfully familiar modern theme, it took him to oblivion.

Much of the film takes place against miniaturized, relentlessly tricked-up urban landscapes that make Batman's Gotham look like one of the new village centers in Columbia. Director Proyas has a great feel for the sense of urban despair reflected in architecture and he does a nifty job staging action sequences. But more than anything, it's the intensity of his vision that gives the movie its clammy conviction; you sense his belief in the materials, his utter faith in the worth of the endeavor.

Michael Wincott, he of the gravel voice and long, mean squirrelly face, makes an excellent villain, as he has so many times in the past (most recently in Disney's "Three Musketeers," where he was the best thing.) Ernie Hudson has a nice turn as a sane policeman who provides a grounding in reality, and Rochelle Davis plays the de rigueur nice little girl who benefits from Draven's explosive vengeance.

I would add something about the music if I could remember it. I know this: It was very, very loud and seemed to consist of three notes played over and over. That's fine, but did they have to play them on my left eardrum? Ouch.


Hear Hunter's reviews

To hear movie critic Stephen Hunter read his published reviews, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6250 after you hear the greeting.

"The Crow"

Starring Brandon Lee

Directed by Alex Proyas

Released by Miramax


Rated R