A Retrospective by Noah Antwiler
Imagine a darker reality, a world of looming gothic architecture and sharp, jagged shadows. The cities are all slums and combat zones, the streets look like toilets, and the world is constantly peed on from God on high. People are pale and generally not nice at all. It's a world as written by Stabbing Westward and The Cure. No candy and gumdrops here, folks, we're talking about the movies adapted from James O'Barr's comics about an undead avenger, brought back to life by a magic crow to set all the wrong things right. Put simply, they're about whitefaced angst-ridden goths in eighty cows' worth of black leather who seek justice by killing every last grimy creep who was loosely connected with his murder. My mommy always told me "two wrongs don't make a right," but if I'd listened to her I wouldn't be the colossus of journalism that I am today. No, I'd have become a stupid doctor who helps people and makes lots of money. But I suppose a movie about a dude who returns from the dead and runs around forgiving everyone until they repent wouldn't have been as exciting. It does bring up an interesting idea for a movie about Jesus though...
Pilate: "Any last words?"
Jesus: "I'll be back."
It's interesting to note that in the Stairway to Heaven television series, killing was verboten for The Crow. If he did kill anyone, they returned as a similarly indestructible dead guy known as a Snake that's harder to get rid of than the new World of Darkness books. Now that we're all on the same page of gothness... gothitude... gothicity... let's talk about those kooky Crow movies.
Rockerboy Eric Draven had everything going for him. A sweet axe, a sweeter girlfriend, and a swanky loft in the city (as gothic landscapes go). Unfortunately, the gangsters in the apartment downstairs get sick of the loud music, so they kill everyone and throw Eric out the window. If there's one thing that makes animal spirits of vengeance angry, it's watching a happy couple defenestrated, so Draven claws his way out of the grave reborn as The Crow. The cynic in me thinks that's a little sexist. Shouldn't Draven's fiancée Shelly have more reason to seek retribution since she was both raped and murdered? I think the Crow spirit just chose Eric because he had a cool black outfit in the closet already.
The first movie was a rousing success, despite its many flaws. It's not very well-written, and much of the dialogue is rather dry. Most memorable for me is the absurdly angry bug-up-his-butt police lieutenant whose sole purpose in life is to make the good, honest cop's life miserable by shouting things like "You're too involved in this case, Albrecht!" or "The mayor's been up my ass! I've got a goddamned vigilante killer out there knocking off scumbags left and right!" or "You've got 48 hours to solve this case, Albrecht, or you're suspended!" The movie also seems somewhat unfairly balanced, as there's nothing that can harm The Crow unless you kill the actual bird (which makes him mortal again). This robs the movie of any tension the fights might add, and becomes a series of graphic murders in which Draven toys with his former tormentors and gives them a painful (and usually explosive) terminal comeuppance. The movie is at its best when considered artistically, and it allows the music to tell its story.
The Crow: City of Angels
The sequel wasn't long in coming, considering the success of the first. It didn't take that long to write, either; all they did was Xerox the first movie's script and slap a new title page on it. Not a good move, considering most of that movie was carried by the magnetic personality of Brandon Lee and not the script. The story's the same as before, only now the villain is a sadomasochistic drug lord shaman (yes, really) with a terrible nose for business. He brutally executes one of his lieutenants for destroying a bad batch of heroin-- a decision the man should have been rewarded for. After all, bad product kills customers and costs him long-term profits! Once again the villain here manages to kill the magical bird, but this time he captures it with an elaborate cage mechanism (that must go down in history as one of the luckiest shots EVER), drinks its blood and becomes invulnerable! Now raise your hand if you knew it worked like that.
City of Angels also included a subtle subplot regarding the hero's failure, making the ending rather bittersweet. This subplot was so subtle, however, that nobody ever caught it. You have to listen to the commentaries in the DVD to learn that The Crow is only free to perform his grisly business on Earth, and no longer. If he grows too attached to mortal life (say, because of Halo 2), then he can never go to his eternal reward in Heaven. Thou shalt not kill unless a mystical bird doth command it. So at the end of the film, The Crow has actually out-stayed his welcome when he went to rescue his captured girlfriend. It turns out that the villain, Judah, really didn't have anything to do with the hero's murder, and so his death wasn't technically "sanctioned." This is all very technical, full of loopholes, and it would have been really nice if there was a single line of dialogue anywhere in the movie that hinted at this hidden layer of depth. What are we supposed to do, divine this info with a Ouija board?
The Crow: Salvation
At this point, most people realized that the Crow franchise died with Brandon Lee, but Miramax kept churning out sequels to the direct-to-video market. Salvation, to its credit, did take the story in a new direction and took some refreshing liberties with the Crow character. In this story, Eric Mabius plays Alex Corvis, a man on death row for the murder of his girlfriend. He didn't do it, of course, but the crooked cops responsible have put him on the fast track to the electric chair. Instead of wearing the white clown makeup and black eyeshadow, Corvis' trademark Crow colors are burned into his face from the execution mask. This time, Corvis' mission isn't so clear in his own mind, and he sets out to discover for himself who killed his girlfriend and framed him. After he scores some White Castles, of course; prison food sucks.
Salvation is surprisingly good, especially for a critic like me who watches DTV sequels with low expectations, and Crow sequels doubly so. Fans will dig the original story, the decent soundtrack, and the ensemble cast that includes Kirsten Dunst in a forgotten role. The last act is a little strange, and the script seems to rely overmuch on the hero's discovery of a severed arm. Still, it does take steps to address the rules for The Crow's existence, and even offers a "gotcha" moment for snarky critics who expect the bird to die in every film.
The Crow: Wicked Prayer
Let's say you're a movie producer. You manage to strike solid gold when David Boreanaz from TV's Angel agrees to appear in your new Crow movie. We're talking about a physically-fit, sexy beefcake of a man with martial arts training and some real acting chops. He's absolutely perfect for the role of The Crow, so of course the makers of Wicked Prayer decided to put Boreanaz in the role of a scenery-chewing spaz villain Luc Crash. Who did they decide to don the whiteface? None other than Edward Furlong, better known as "the kid from Terminator 2: Judgment Day." He's a decent enough actor, but why in the name of all that's holy didn't they cast Angel in the role? Poor casting alone is enough to kill this movie. Furlong simply isn't physically imposing. His makeup, costuming, and hairstyle are all terrible, and he looks exactly like Winona Ryder. What's worse is that Furlong doesn't exactly have a lot of bass in his voice, and while he's adventuring as The Crow, he still has a squeaky nasal tone that makes you want to dump his books and stuff him in a locker.
Other notable acquisitions are Danny Trejo, a fine Latino actor here cast as an American Indian (a decision that's borderline offensive considering they're very distinct cultures) and Dennis Hopper himself. I'll get to Dennis in a minute. Boreanaz's character is named Luc Crash for the sole reason that his co-star Tara Reid is named Lola Byrne, which sets up the inevitable eye-rollingly bad "Crash & Byrne" joke down the line. That's right, Tara "Frankenboobs" Reid is in this movie, and she left her talent in her other implants. Any moment with Reid on screen is only slightly less-painful than having bamboo shoots shoved under your fingernails. I don't really remember much about her performance, because any time she appeared I started slapping myself to block out the agony, and I thought I might never stop.
The artistic conceit for this picture is to relocate the setting to the deserts of the American southwest, and to pit The Crow against the Four Horsemen. Not the Biblical Four Horsemen, or even WCW's Four Horsemen with Chris Benoit, Arn Anderson, Ric Flair, and Tully Blanchard. That would be awesome. In Wicked Prayer, the Four Horsemen are a gang of Dusty People who think a shower is scrubbing one's armpits with a damp paper towel in the bathroom of a Texaco. This is how the Horsemen are introduced to us, and I swear I haven't changed a word:
Occupation: Toxic Waste Removal
Occupation: Fry Cook
Legal Status: Half Breed
Tribal Status: Rejected
Occupation: Mine Demolition
Fatalities: Three Brothers
Occupation: Satanic Cult Leader
Motive: Father Killed by an Indian
Mission: Raise Hell... Literally
A fry cook? Chris Benoit could totally take these guys. Luc Crash is "Death," and his villainous plot is to systematically kill people according to his girlfriend's book of witchcraft so he can become Satan. Jimmy Cuervo (Furlong) and his girlfriend are two victims in his path, because his spellbook calls for "the gall bladder of a whiny femme child-star has-been." Dennis Hopper plays a satanic hippie pimp (yes, really) named El Nino (yes, really) who performs the last part of Crash's ritual to become the Devil: a black wedding to Tara Reid. Hopper's performance is so strange, it enters the realm of surreal. Indeed, when the part of a satanic hippie pimp was put forward, the only actor worthy of bringing it to life would be Dennis Hopper, n'est-ce pas? As if the character wasn't colorful enough, El Nino performs his dark rituals while speaking Snoop Dizzle ebonics. Here are some of his lines from the wedding, here immortalized for your enjoyment:
"He'll be your homey now and forever more! I now pronounce you devil and his shorty! Kiss the bride motherf*****! Well, all wicked-ass props to you Mr. O.G. and thanks for representing all the homeys."
Don't worry folks, I'm still working on a way to go back in time so I can terminate the makers of these bad movies! No, there's no need to thank me. I'm just representing all my homeys.