Remembering Brandon Lee: The Crow

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…”

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Candyman

As far as ghetto urban legend movies go, this is creepier than The People Under the Stairs, but not quite as memorable. The character of Candyman1 is excellent, and Tony Todd plays the legendary ghoul of Cabrini-Green with gusto. But the story meanders too much, and gets much too hackneyed for such an original premise.
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen, Highlander 2: The Quickening, Sideways) is studying urban legends and wants to outdo the tenured profs at the U. She teams up with Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons, Silence of the Lambs, Hard Target) to seek out the origins of the darkest legend only spoken of in whispers, that of the Candyman2. Sort of an amalgam of “Bloody Mary” and ghost stories of escaped slaves, saying his name 5 times in front of a mirror will apparently summon him. He was the son of a slave who fell in love with a plantation owner’s daughter, and when whitey gets wind of it, they hack his hand off, jam a hook into the meaty stump, and then strip him naked and smash a beehive on his gonads. Ow.
His ashes were spread over the land that would be the home of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, lorded over by gangs so powerful that the film-makers let them be extras in exchange for protection. As Helen delves into the evidence of the legend which include recent brutal murders and mutilations- a boy castrated in a restroom, a babysitter and child disemboweled- she explores the spooky underbelly of the projects, finding things that any urban explorer would jizz in their pants over. The best is when she finds a sub-basement, and emerges through a hole in the wall, around which Candyman’s3 face is painted on the other side.
Helen meets few people who are friendly to her- most outsiders come to the projects to gawk or brave the dangers, or as misguided do-gooders. She meets a young mother who sneers, and tells her not everyone here is a gangbanger or a drug addict, and most just want to be left alone to live in whatever dignity they can scrounge. She learns that people believe in the legend, and but are understandably quiet about it. You don’t talk much about a guy who comes to kill you if you say his name 5 times. Helen makes the mistake of saying his name in front of a mirror as a lark, and getting his notice.
Shortly after, Helen is approached by a strange man in a long pimp coat in the parking deck, with a deep and alluring voice. Who could that be? He speaks of her as if they are destined to be together, and after she faints, the body count starts to rise. This is where the movie falters, by becoming a slasher film. Helen awakes next to mutilated bodies, and we know she didn’t kill them because we saw Candyman4 do it; it would be better if we weren’t sure. She gets committed to a mental institution, and her husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley, T2, “24”) decides to get a newer model instead of trying to help. Soon Helen realizes that her only hope is to fight back, but how do you fight a monster?
The ending is ultimately unsatisfying, with little resolution- there is some interesting conjecture that legends only live because we believe, but that goes nowhere. In the end, the C-man is defeated too easily, and we get a new monster a little too reminiscent of Fredwina Krueger to take his place. The premise is a great one, but in the end they don’t do a lot with it. Philip Glass was brought on board to score it, but withheld the rights when he saw they’d changed it to a slasher film. I think he made the right choice. This could have been a lot better, and it’s a shame, because Tony Todd’s performance is unforgettable, and iconic.

He’s a real son of a bee! hyuk, hyuk.

Whew, I reviewed it and only said it 4 times! Oh wait, does the post title count? Shit.

Big Bald Black Dudes I admire- 2009 update

As you know (or you should) every Black History Month, I take a moment to reflect on the Big Bald Black Dudes I admire. Perhaps it was growing up in the ’70s with Gordon on Sesame Street, or my favorite movies including The Thing with Keith David, but big bald black dudes are just the baddest asses in cinema, in my not so humble opinion.

Last year I dubbed Keith David, Ving Rhames, Scatman Crothers, Delroy Lindo, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Tommy “Tiny” Lister Jr. in my annual post, where I also made the audacious claim that Stephen King has never met a black person, so this year I came up with a few new nominees for the halls of badassery.

1. Bill Duke
Best known as Mac from Predator, Bill’s been a bad-ass for ages. I first remember him as a bad guy in Commando, where he tells Matrix he’s a Green Beret. Unfortunately, John Matrix eats Green Berets for breakfast and shits toy soldiers, so he gets impaled on a table leg. But not before he trashes the hotel room with Arnie in such a brutal fashion that Rae Dawn Chong is made to exclaim, “you guys eat too much red meat!”

Of course, there’s no such thing as too much red meat, and Bill Duke can probably eat the ass off a brontosaur and ask for seconds. Even though the Predator freaks him out so bad that he sings “Long Tall Sally” in a falsetto, Mac is one of the classic movie bad-asses. My cousin Lou Taylor Pucci got the honor of starring with him in a movie called The Go-Getter, and for that I’m more envious than when he got to touch Kelli Garner’s tit in Thumbsucker. Bill Duke’s given us memorable performances in Menace II Society “you know you done fucked up right?” and The Limey, and I’m hoping someday he’ll get to play a frog.

2. Charles Dutton
Best known as the star of “Roc” in the early ’90s, Charles Dutton has clobbered xenomorphs in Alien3, and gigantic mutant flying cockroaches in Mimic. He’s one of the few redeemable qualities of the “scripted by comittee” shitfest that is the second Alien sequel, that even David Fincher could barely save. Seeing him swing Sigurney Weaver around by the neck, you wonder why they bother trying to trap the alien, when it’s obvious that Dutton could just grab it by it’s li’l mouth and force it to perform oral sex on him, after which it would just kill itself in shame.

3. Samuel L. (the L. stands for le motherfuckin’) Jackson
Last time I disqualified Mr. Jackson because his best bad-ass role- Jules from Pulp Fiction – was performed with the assistance of hair. However, since then Sam has been shorn, and given us the baddest, baldest motherfuckin’ Jedi (despite the festive purple lightsaber), a bald Son of Shaft, a bald Nick Fury, and a mostly bald bad-ass bluesman in Black Snake Moan. So I’m going to induct him into the Big Bald Black Men Hall of Fame. He’s earned his due.

4. Isaac Hayes
(pre-Adventure Club)
Before he got suckered into thinking our souls were H-bombed in volcanoes billions of years ago, Isaac Hayes was a groundbreaking musician and one of the biggest bald black bad-asses around. to mourn the passing of his reason that happened so many years prior to his death, I would like to posthumously induct him in. The evidence: The Duke of New York, A number One, from Escape from New York. He gave super bad-ass Snake Plissken a run for his money, and that’s saying a lot. He was also the star of Truck Turner. This was after writing the amazing score to Shaft and composing great soul albums like Hot Buttered Soul and Black Moses. He also served as Chef for many years before his handlers got to him, obviously in a time of weakness, since he passed on not long after. We forgive you Isaac. Rest in peace.

Note: Tony “Candyman” Todd
Last year I got flack for not including Tony Todd. Well, I finally watched Candyman, and I will concur that Tony Todd is a fucking bad-ass. However, it must be noted that he is not bald. He would be even more bad-ass if he’d been bald, with some crazy facial hair, maybe shaped like a hook. Todd’s also been in the Final Destination movies, Platoon, and The Crow, so he’s a shoo-in for badassery. If only he’d take a Wahl clipper and polish up his noggin, he could join the club.

That’s all until next year, where it will get even harder to find nominees for this post. I might even have to include Elmo: