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‘The Crow’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 13, 1994

Brandon Lee, slain by a stunt gun during the production of "The Crow," haunts every frame of his final film. The 28-year-old actor's passing suffuses this scenario, about a murdered rock musician whose ghost wreaks vengeance on his killers, with prescient, touching irony: An otherwise respectable pop noir is transformed into something eerie and deeply compelling.

Adapted from the underground comic book series of the same name, "Crow" flutters stylishly through a nighttime world of rain-drenched back streets, vertiginous rooftops and shadowy club rooms. The images are frenetic, violent and composed with cartoonish artfulness. The camera flits from ledge to ledge like a restless Harpy. When it's time for fighting, the songs (by Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine and others) punch loud, boisterous holes in the soundtrack. And when the story turns mournful -- which is often -- Graeme Revell's electronic, dirgelike score drapes the story in a postmodern pall.

Against this MTV-style barrage of sound and image, a rather tragic love story unfolds. Lee is Eric Draven, a small-time rock musician who, with his fiancee Shelly (Sofia Shinas), is murdered by a gang of hoodlums on "Devil's Night," the evening before Halloween. Exactly a year later, Draven -- accompanied by an otherworldly crow -- emerges from the grave to take systematic, bloody revenge. His reappearance echoes a legend in which unhappy souls (with a crow in attendance) return to the living to redress their grievances.

Draven, his face painted in mime-cum-death-mask white, deals each gangster his just deserts. A punk who carries several knives and a thug with a morphine habit find themselves stabbed to death with the tools of their trade -- and so on.

As Draven works his vengeful way up to the bass-voiced ringleader, Top Dollar (Michael Wincott), he establishes sympathetic links with the detective (Ernie Hudson) assigned to the original massacre and the girl (Rochelle Davis) Draven and Shelly used to take care of.

The characters, derived from James O'Barr's "graphic novel," are comic-book archetypes, their dialogue (penned by screenwriters David J. Schow and John Shirley) a collection of cartoon-balloon hokum. ("I think we broke her," Top Dollar tells his funereal sister-lover as a naked concubine lies dead between them.) In fact, the whole story, full of messianic images, Gothic steeple finales and music-video poignancies, is decidedly corny.

But Australian director Alex Proyas keeps the action moving so fast and atmospherically, everything gains dimension. Even the violence (actually toned down from an original NC-17 rating) seems too stylized to take seriously. Whether his motives were profit-oriented, eulogistic, artistic or all three, Proyas has composed the perfect swan song. Finally, there is Lee -- as Draven -- enjoying the last moments of his life in flashback, with a lover he'll never get to marry. The real-life similarities are palpably affecting. But "Crow," in all its arty trashiness and sepulchral reverence, gives Lee's tragedy an oddly comforting epilogue. If he had to die so soon, this movie is the best and most appropriate sendoff Lee could have hoped for.

"The Crow" is rated R for language, nudity and violence.

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