3.5 out of 5 stars

The tragic death of Brandon Lee casts a long shadow over The Crow, yet secures its place in cinematic history. No one can watch Alex Proyas’s superhero film without feeling saddened that Lee was fatally wounded by a prop gun during filming, and so can never experience what would surely have been his breakthrough role. The Crow gave him the chance to step out of the shadow cast by his father, martial arts legend Bruce Lee, but he’s now forever associated with a film that explores spiritual themes and possesses a melancholy that ironically complements the sadness surrounding his death.

The Crow began life as a 1989 comic-book series by James O’Barr. He wrote it as a way to cope with the death of his fiancée, who was killed by a drunk driver. An underground hit with readers, it felt like perfect material for a film adaptation, especially following Tim Burton’s dark take on Batman (1989), which opened the floodgates for comic-book films with more mature themes. However, O’Barr was initially disillusioned when studio executives told him they instead envisioned The Crow as a twisted musical starring Michael Jackson!

Eventually, writer John Shirley was drawn to the property after learning of its similarities to a comic book he’d written called Angry Angel. A kindred spirit, he collaborated with O’Barr on various drafts of a screenplay under producer Jeff Most. However, Shirley was dismissed by producer Edward Pressman due to clashes with his development head. Acclaimed splatterpunk writer David J. Schow then took over the screenplay.

Australian director Alex Proyas, having made waves with his debut sci-fi thriller, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1988), was hired to direct The Crow. Big-name actors like River Phoenix and Christian Slater were considered for the lead role of murdered musician Eric Draven. However, the more unusual choice of Brandon Lee impressed both O’Barr and Proyas, and he was duly cast.

The Crow tells the story of the aforementioned Eric Draven, a rock musician living with his fiancée, Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas), in a hellish version of Detroit plagued by rampant crime and violence. On Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween, the couple are attacked by a gang. They rape Shelly and throw Eric, after shooting him, to his death from their apartment window. However, a year later, a crow magically resurrects Eric. As a restless spirit who died tragically, his soul wasn’t carried to the afterlife. Now back in the city, Eric uses his newfound invulnerability to become a vigilante. With his face painted black and white, he sets out to avenge his death by killing those responsible—including their leader, Top Dollar (Michael Wincott).

The general narrative of The Crow has been frequently imitated since its release and wasn’t particularly new even in 1994. It shares a broad premise with RoboCop (1987), but without the science fiction and corporate satire. The Crow is a far darker, doom-laden tale, possibly the first entry into the pre-millennial anxieties that seeped into films of the mid-to-late 1990s. Se7en (1995) marked the moment this trend went mainstream, but The Crow sits comfortably alongside other dystopian films like Strange Days (1995), all set in a depressing urban reality. Even television series like Millennium (1996–98) owe a debt to its bleak aesthetic, while Proyas himself delivered another classic in this vein with Dark City (1998) some years later.

The Crow’s combination of a rain-drenched city reminiscent of Blade Runner (1982) but with the Gothic architecture of Batman ’89, felt fresh and invigorating at the time—particularly for teenagers prone to feelings of depression and loneliness. The Crow is now synonymous with “Goths” and remains a touchstone for that subculture. This is perhaps why it’s constantly being rediscovered every decade as a new generation of adolescents gravitate towards its gloomy, ominous, and vengeful exploration of enduring love and the fragility of mortality. The fascinating real-life tragedy at the heart of its creation, with Lee himself dying about a week before filming would have wrapped, has undoubtedly given The Crow even more resonance for those with a naturally fatalistic outlook on life.

The simplicity of The Crow’s story is a strength. It allows Proyas to tell an uncomplicated tale very efficiently and for Lee, with his almost monochrome visuals, to imbue everything with more weight than it has on the page. However, the film certainly has some flaws, though some can be attributed to the filmmakers having to work around the unexpected loss of their lead actor towards the end of shooting.

One major problem is that The Crow doesn’t spend any time with Shelly and Eric before they’re murdered. The crime itself has already happened when the film starts. We therefore experience the immediate aftermath, with only brief flashbacks filling in the gaps once Eric is resurrected and heads back to the scene of the crime.

I don’t recall this approach bothering me back in the ’90s, but today it feels like a deeper emotional connection with Eric is missing. We can sympathise with his awful situation, but the raw desire to see him get revenge on the gang isn’t as strong as it could have been. Likewise, we don’t meet the gang members before Eric hunts them down, so with every encounter it’s difficult to feel joy that he’s sent another scumbag to their grave. It seems those opening scenes were rewritten to account for Lee’s death, so I presume they intended to structure things more traditionally but had to start with the aftermath and fill in the gaps of what happened later. It’s an unavoidable problem, but it softens our connection to every character. It would be like re-writing RoboCop so we never actually see Alex Murphy get killed; you can certainly make it work, but you lose that visceral attachment to the person seeking vengeance.

Brandon Lee’s performance is perhaps overpraised, for it feels churlish to speak ill of the dead. Nevertheless, he’s certainly good in this role. It’s more of a performance piece, with many scenes requiring little dialogue and relying on Lee’s physicality and martial arts skills. The character’s costume and make-up are also iconic now, and undoubtedly influenced The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)—both characters share identical “slits” from the corners of their mouths. There’s even a scene where Eric approaches a boardroom table full of criminals that mirrors a similar moment in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster, just before The Joker (Heath Ledger) performs the “pencil trick.” Both films are also, of course, connected by the tragic loss of a lead performer.

The rest of the cast are reliable actors, primarily there to make us loathe them in various ways on sight alone. I particularly enjoyed T-Bird (David Patrick Kelly) and Funboy (Michael Massee), but you also have the brilliant Tony Todd lurking about as a right-hand man called Grange. However, the real delight is Michael Wincott as Top Dollar, if only because he possesses one of the greatest voices for villainous roles and is thoroughly entertaining throughout. It’s a shame his character isn’t directly implicated in Eric and Shelly’s murders, though, as he’s simply someone who orchestrates general mayhem across the city. Perhaps things had to be adjusted after Lee’s fatal injury, it’s difficult to say.

But the standout is Ernie Hudson, who you sometimes forget had a decent career outside of the Ghostbusters (1984) franchise. He’s the “Commissioner Gordon” role as Sgt Albrecht and brings most of the heart and humanity to the film, as the only normal person on screen. The Crow wouldn’t work half as well without Hudson, as you need that calm and rational voice of authority to anchor the sadness and weirdness of this city and what daily life seems to be for everyone.

Overall, The Crow is a highly regarded and influential film, even though it essentially riffs on a lot of material that came before it. The climax—completed without Lee, using stunt double Chad Stahelski (who would later become a director)—even takes place atop a large church, just like in Batman. Watching The Crow gives you a sense of where 1990s cinema was headed. It’s a great revenge film wrapped in comic book clothing, that treated superheroes with more seriousness than we’d ever seen before. 

USA | 1994 | 102 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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30th Anniversary Limited Edition 4K Ultra HD Special Features:

I haven’t seen The Crow since its VHS days in the ’90s, so this new 4K Ultra HD upgrade was a major upgrade. The 2160p clarity of the image does have its downsides, however, as some of the earlier VFX sequences of the city don’t look as good as I remembered them being. But it does make the production design and costumes look far more detailed than I’ve ever seen them, giving the world of The Crow an extra sense of tactility and artistry.

The Dolby Vision/HDR always helps a dark movie like this, although the blacks weren’t as inky as I’d have liked at times, and the colour palette of The Crow is altogether so muted that few scenes stood out to me as reference material.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack for The Crow is generally good, although there are times when low dialogue gets a little lost in the mix. The rear channels are mostly there for some ambient mood, which does a great job of enveloping audiences in the scenes. It’s a shame a more modern object-based mix, like DTS:X, wasn’t included in this 2024 release.

  • Audio Commentaries. Director Alex Proyas shares his experiences of working on the movie and with Brandon Lee, while in a separate track producer Jeff Most and co-screenwriter John Shirley analyse the film.
  • NEW Shadows & Pain: Designing The Crow. This is a short three-part documentary looking at the film’s production, music score, and performances.
  • Angels All Fire: Birth of the Legend.
  • On Hallowed Ground: The Outer Realm.
  • Twisted Wreckage: The Inside Spaces.
  • NEW Sideshow Collectibles. An interview with producer Edward R. Pressman about the collectable Crow figurines.
  • A Profile on James O’Barr.
  • Behind the Scenes Featurette.
  • Extended Scenes.
  • Deleted Footage Montage.
  • Trailer.
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Cast & Crew

director: Alex Proyas.
writers: David J. Schow & John Shirley (based on the comic-book by James O’Barr).
starring: Brandon Lee, Ernie Hudson, Michael Wincott, Bai Ling, Sofia Shinas, Anna Levine, David Patrick Kelly, Laurence Mason, Michael Massee, Tony Todd, Jon Polito, Bill Raymond, Angel David & Marco Rodriguez.