The unexpected death of an actor can have a strange effect on the public, sometimes elevating adequacy into brilliance. This wasn’t the case with The Crow. In his final performance, Brandon Lee commands the screen. The tragedy onscreen and the tragedy behind the scenes blurred the line between reality and fiction, as if the tragic death of Brandon Lee were all a publicity hoax. But it wasn’t a hoax, and Brandon Lee’s breakout performance would be his last. And The Crow would prove to be a breakout hit. Well reviewed and a box office hit, The Crow was an unexpected hit. It cracked the top 25 box office draws of 1994, between Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult and Natural Born Killers. The combination of the film’s finality and the death of its leading man would make constructing a sequel a near impossible task. But there was money to be made, and a sequel was commissioned nonetheless.
The Crow was a crossover success in the way that influenced film and culture separately. From the cinematic angle, it was an obvious forbearer to the grim and gritty superhero fare that would be prevalent later. From a cultural angle, the film helped firmly establish a certain aesthetic that would become identified as Goth. After the director of the first film, Alex Proyas, had already moved to begin work on Dark City, the producers secured Tim Pope to be film the director and David S. Goyer to be the writer. Like Proyas before him, Pope had cut his teeth working on music videos. Pope and Goyer had hoped to take this sequel in a different direction than the original, however, the producers had other intentions.
All kinds of ideas were thrown out there – 19th Century England, 2 brothers slain, Sarah from the first film killed and brought back as the Crow – before they ultimately settled on a father and son slain. It’s been reported that there was a 160-minute cut of the film, and that the film was edited against Pope and Goyer’s wishes to closer resemble the first film. Even with the obvious edits the film went through, there’s not a universe where the idea of a nearly 3-hour Crow film doesn’t sound awful. No matter the editing or the intentions of its creative crew, any Crow sequel is going to, on some level, be thematically similar to the first. It’s not like you can craft a story around someone wrongfully killed who returns from the dead to exact vengeance against their perpetuators be wildly different from the previous story about someone wrongfully killed who returns from the dead to exact vengeance against their perpetuators, only certain elements can vary.
One area in which The Crow: City of Angels separates itself from its predecessor is its production design. Where the first film portrayed Detroit as a gothic, impressionist dystopia where the rain never stops, the sequel portrays Los Angeles as a hazy neon hell. Production designer Alex McDowell, who also did the first film’s production design, does a hell of a job giving the thematically similar sequel a very different aesthetic. Combined with the cinematography of Jean-Yves Escoffier, the film’s visual style has a feel that lies somewhere between the signature tones of David Fincher and the stylized hellscape of Punisher: War Zone. The film also features fantastic miniature work, creating a uniquely textured cityscape that is distinctly different than the previous movie.
The film’s cast is a mixed bag of brilliance and woeful incompetence. Nothing against the talents of Vincent Perez, but he’s placed in an untenable situation. The Swiss-born actor of Spanish descent gives it his best go as the resurrected Ashe Corven, but his accent proves too thick to be anything but distracting, and too often his manic energy just seems like a bad impersonation of what Brandon Lee did previously. As an older version of Sarah, the young girl from the first film, Mia Kirshner is nothing more than malleable pulp, colorless, blank, and easily shaped into something flat and bland. There is, however, an interesting rock ‘n’ roll element to the film’s casting. The Godfather of Punk, Iggy Pop, plays one of the murderous gang members. As usual, Pop is the most entertaining thing onscreen in his limited role, shifting between the comic and grotesque in moment’s notice. In a brief role, Ian Dury of Ian Dury and the Blockheads plays Noah, the English-born tattoo artist and mentor to Sarah. With the exception of a young Thomas Jane as a member of the murderous gang, the rest of the villainous cast is all but forgettable, a minor rehash of the first installment’s villains.
In its opening weekend, The Crow: City of Angels debuted at number one at the box office. The first week’s gross was almost equal to that of the first film, but it had no lasting power and ended up grossing less than half of the first film’s domestic tally. It would be the last Crow film to be released theatrically, two more sequels were released straight-to-video. For years now there have been rumors about a remake/reboot/cynical cash grab, a seemingly never-ending merry-go-round of actors and directors hopping on and off the project. Despite the fact that there is little demand for another installment, producers and executives can’t let The Crow die. They keep trying to resuscitate a franchise that only worked once. Like its titular character, The Crow will keep being rising from the grave for love. After all, the love of money transcends all.