Before Heath Ledger’s little pill misadventure prior to his stunning performance as The Joker made it to screen, another actor playing a white-faced smiling avenger in a breakthrough role died before the film was released. Brandon Lee, starring in Alex Proyas’s adaptation of the brutal comic mini-series, The Crow. Due to a tragic and avoidable accident on set, Lee was shot and died 12 hours later in the hospital. The shooting was ruled an accident; with only 8 days of shooting (sic) remaining, the producers finished the film with stunt doubles, in an eerie déjà vu of his father Bruce Lee’s death and the subsequent posthumous release of his final film, Game of Death.
Even eerier was the plot of the film itself, about a murdered musician back from the grave to avenge his death and his raped and murdered fiancé, Shelly. Directed by Alex Proyas, it’s a dark visual feast that proved incredibly influential to films that followed. Lee played Eric Draven, the seemingly invulnerable revenant who hunts down the Detroit thugs who killed him; he rises from his grave when a crow alights on it to caw. Once he has risen, he will not rest until he’s killed everyone involved, and only appears to a young street girl named Sarah, and a sympathetic cop (played by Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson) who stayed with Shelly as she died.
Brandon had previously appeared in a fun but forgettable martial arts actioner called Rapid Fire, and an “unlikely buddies” cop duo with Dolph Lundgren shooting and karate chopping their way to a Showdown in Little Tokyo. That film gets a bad rap, and while ridiculous- it’s made by the same director as the iconic action flick Commando– both Lundgren and Lee make amusing banter out of lines Shane Black would be ashamed to write. They have fun with it, and Lundgren shows range unexplored in most of his other work. Lee was a newcomer, but nearly stole the show with graceful martial arts moves and a snappy sense of comic timing.
In The Crow, he had to play something completely different. A dark and brooding Goth icon clad in a leather trench coat, plastered with white make-up and an ironic doll’s smile. After all, the character created by James O’Barr was based on an amalgam of Ian Curtis, Peter Murphy, and Iggy Pop and the story came from the author dealing with the death of his girlfriend by a drunk driver. Dark stuff. Not something your typical martial arts action star does. But Lee took the character and made him into a playful demonic apparition, not an obsessed Ahab but a spirit not only bent on dragging his tormentors to hell, but comforting the living. In one of the best scenes, he corners Sarah’s junkie mother (Anna Levine; the cut whore in Unforgiven) and squeezes the heroin out of her veins, telling her “Mother is the name of God on the lips of all children. Your daughter is waiting.”
The film is peppered with great dark dialogue from O’Barr’s excellent comics, such as Eric’s sick joke as he torments a pawnbroker: “Jesus walks into a motel, and hands the innkeeper three nails… and says ‘Can you put me up for the night?'” Jon Polito plays the pawnbroker, great as always; you’ve seen him in the Coen Brothers movies, here and there. The cast also includes Tony “Candyman” Todd as a memorable mob gunman, David Patrick Kelly (Sullie from Commando) as gang thug T-Bird, and first-timer Rochelle Davis as young Sarah. She played the role well, but never appeared in a film again. According to articles, she is still disturbed over Brandon’s death, and sadly, has fallen in with people like Eric’s killers (full article).
The screenplay by splatterpunk alumni David J. Schow and John Shirley only falters where it dips into the Hollywood well that demands comic relief; if this were made after The Dark Knight, it would be a different story. But perhaps the brief respites from the oppressive wasteland of the Detroit metro area on Devil’s Night are what the story needed. Alex Proyas, in his first Hollywood film, brings great visual chops to the board. The film is brutally dark but we manage to see everything we need. When Eric sends T-Bird and his car exploding off a pier, he tags the scene with some lighter fluid, giving us a flaming crow silhouette. We get many “crow’s eye views” as Eric’s harbinger bird of death soars the city seeking his victims.
But it’s probably the fight scenes that were most felt. In the final confrontation between Eric and the gang leader (played with an oily evil grin by Michael Wincott) in a roomful of gun-wielding thugs, we can’t help but recall the Joker in The Dark Knight strutting in to the meeting of his enemies. And while Eric has no pencil tricks, his dripping black hair and decrepit make-up are uncanny. But then again, The Crow came after Batman: The Killing Joke, so who knows who influenced who? One thing is for sure, as Brandon somersaults and pirouettes around the room in his trench coat as bullets fly and decimate the scenery, we know the Wachowski Brothers were watching. The famous lobby scene in The Matrix looks like a pale imitation. The film launched Proyas’s career and let him make the excellent Dark City, which may have cribbed a bit from Hellraiser but is still one of the most memorable films of the ’90s, melding film noir and science fiction in ways undreamed of since Blade Runner.
But Brandon, he pulled a James Dean and ended before he started. The story is, a .44 magnum revolver used by Funboy was loaded with shells that had the gunpowder removed, and the slugs replaced, so they’d be visible in the cylinders; this was done to save money and time, instead of finding inert shells. The gun expert did not remove the primers. When he went home, the inexperienced prop crew “played with it,” and an ignited primer sent the slug into the barrel. Then the gun was loaded with blanks for another scene, and the gun was not cleared. So, when the blank was fired, its gunpowder sent the slug lodged in the barrel into Brandon Lee’s abdomen where it hit his spine. His heart stopped before the ambulance arrived, but he was revived, and finally died 12 hours later at the hospital. The shooting was ruled an accident, and as far as I’ve been able to find, no one was sentenced.
Take that as you will, but John Landis went to court for the helicopter accident in The Twilight Zone; who decided to send the gun expert home and keep shooting? Brandon’s death came weeks before the biopic of his father, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story would come out, and the same conspiracy theories appeared. But Brandon didn’t know any ninja secrets; he learned from his father’s partner, Dan Inosanto. It was yet another tragic death heaped upon the Lee family, but instead of an allergic reaction to aspirin, this time it was reckless, if not criminal, negligence. I have a feeling those involved still suffer, if Rochelle Davis is wrecked over things she had nothing to do with. And I doubt the prop handlers are working in Hollywood, but I wonder. Maybe they were some producer’s nephew.
Brandon had great charisma, and probably would have been one of Hollywood’s first modern Asian action stars. The Crow was a huge hit, and would make $50 million in the U.S. alone, the tenth biggest R-rated film that year. For a new star and a director with a relatively unknown franchise, that was big. The other hit was the soundtrack, which included O’Barr influences like The Cure, as well as Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against the Machine and my favorite, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, who also appear onstage at Top Dollar’s club performing a remix of their song “Nervous Xians,” entitled “After the Flesh.” The film definitely would have springboarded him out of the martial arts ghetto with Jean-Claude and Seagal, and who knows what might have been?
Brandon’s tombstone is engraved with an epitaph from the novel The Sheltering Sky that he quoted in an interview before he died. It speaks of the brevity of life and is sadly, much too apt a marker for his brief, bright flare on the Hollywood scene. I’ll always wonder what could have been.
“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…”