The Crow is a property that Hollywood keeps trying, and failing, to remake—although it’s looking more likely, after potential star Jason Momoa and director Corin Hardy both dropped heavy hints on Instagram this week. I have a serious question, though: Why can’t we just leave The Crow alone?
Re-watching Alex Proyas’ 1994 film—which is based on James O’Barr’s popular indie comic series—is like dipping yourself into a vat of 1990s alternative culture. Though The Crow’s back-from-the-grave revenge plot is a time-worn tale, nearly every other element is specific to the era that produced both the film and the comic. Tragic hero Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) was a Detroit grunge rocker before his untimely death. We’re reminded of this not just by Eric’s leather pants and shaggy locks, but also by snippets of Eric’s music, shared via his album as well as his own plaintive guitar solos. Plus, this outstandingly realistic band promo photo (trust me, I worked in college radio in the mid-1990s) is displayed multiple times:
The soundtrack contains popular bands of the era, including Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, and Stone Temple Pilots. Also, there are many key scenes set in and around the local rock club, whose stage hosts real-life acts like industrial rockers My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult. The black-clad crowds mosh, just like they did on MTV’s 120 Minutes.
On the club’s upper floor—nearly every building in the movie is a beat-up multi-level fire trap, covered in windows that inevitably get smashed out by falling bodies—is where you’ll find The Crow’s big bad, the luxuriantly coiffed Top Dollar (Michael Wincott). That’s where he plots ways to plunge his gloomy, decimated city further into chaos, admires his sword collection, and has three-ways with his sister/lover (Bai Ling), who enjoys plucking the eyeballs out of her conquests. But as cartoonishly silly as the movie’s villains are—including the gang of street thugs that gives Eric a reason to come back from the grave, one of whom is literally named “Skank”—they cause real pain that’s continually emphasized throughout the movie. The 1990s spawned several Batman movies, but even the Dark Knight didn’t brood as much as Eric Draven.
Eric and his beloved, Shelly (Sofia Shinas), are horrifically murdered in act one; thanks to some crow-based magic, he’s revived so that he can get revenge. His most important superpower is that he can’t be killed (because, duh, he’s already dead), though he’s not particularly good at fighting. This skill deficiency allows us to see how his various bullet holes and stab wounds miraculously heal themselves. He can also see through the eyes of the crow that resurrected him, which is useful for recon and launching surprise attacks. His objective is marvelously simple: take down each of the gang members that participated in Shelly’s rape and murder, as well as his own death. He’s also able to make time to help skateboarding tomboy Sarah (Rochelle Davis), a tween he was friends with when he was still alive, by scaring her junkie mother straight, and develop a rapport with Sgt. Albrecht (Ernie Hudson), a good cop whose bosses have an awfully hard time letting him do his job.
All of these characters are very clearly drawn. This includes Eric, whose only mystery is how his harlequin make-up stays so perfect, even in the rain. There’s never any doubt that Eric is going to make all the bad guys very, very sorry. And yet, The Crow is still highly satisfying. The movie relies more on visuals than dialogue, but amid all the despair, there are little moments of humor—and even if the plot is familiar, it’s executed to elicit maximum satisfaction. Eric doesn’t just shoot his enemies (though there’s plenty of gunplay in the film), he finds creative ways to make them suffer. The dark, almost black-and-white look of the movie is basically a graphic novel come to life; after Shelly’s death, Detroit feels so bleak that it’s basically a manifestation of Eric’s grief. But there’s also a clear endpoint to his misery. Once he’s gotten total payback, Eric returns to his grave and is reunited with Shelly in the afterlife as his reward.
We sympathize with Eric not just because of his suffering, but also because he’s basically a regular guy whose emotions transform him into a one-man army. His quest is incredibly focused—most of the movie appears to take place in a single neighborhood—and deeply personal. Hell, he’s willing to return to the land of the dead without killing Top Dollar, basically leaving Detroit’s public enemy number one free to keep fucking shit up, until he learns of the man’s involvement in his and Shelly’s murders.
It’s hard to imagine that a modern remake would keep to such a stripped-down and inward-facing story, especially with a big, flashy star like Jason Momoa in the lead role. But there’s another important component of the 1994 film that’s absolutely the elephant in the room here, and it’s the thing about The Crow that made it an instant cult classic. The Crow was supposed to be the film that elevated Brandon Lee from “son of Bruce Lee” to an action hero in his own right; instead, he was accidentally shot and killed after a prop gun malfunctioned during his last week on the job. The film was only completed after adding a few scenes using Lee’s stunt double as a stand-in, and some hasty rewrites.
The Crow’s pre-credits dedication—“For Brandon and Eliza”—adds immense weight to the sorrow that hangs over the film, as well as its general eeriness. Similar to his character, who died the night before his wedding, Lee was set to marry his sweetheart, Eliza, soon after The Crow wrapped.
That bit of terrible trivia should be enough to encourage everyone—even those who mean well, like the very enthusiastic Momoa—to stand down. At this point, we have no idea what the proposed remake will entail; it probably won’t be set in the 1990s, and perhaps it will merely use O’Barr’s source material as a jumping-off point for a story that only barely resembles the original film. It may or may not connect to the original movie at all—though its makers should consider the 1996 stinker of a sequel, The Crow: City of Angels, which focused on a grown-up Sarah and her encounter with yet another undead vigilante, as a cautionary tale.
Its biggest challenge will be proving why it needs to exist. With the 1994 film granting life after death (on the silver screen, that is) to its star, who plays a character whose entire arc revolves around his own life after death, there are too many levels of meaning and meta-tragedy to even attempt to replicate. So if the remake does happen, chances are we’ll all be better served just re-watching The Crow. We may enjoy its cheesy 1990s authenticity, but we should also respect its singularly spooky sadness.