August 30, 1996
I don’t remember ever hearing anybody say nice things about THE CROW part 2, CITY OF ANGELS, so let me start out with one: this is a gorgeous looking movie. Part 1 production designer Alex McDowell (LAWNMOWER MAN, CRYING FREEMAN, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, WATCHMEN) returns, this time with cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier (GUMMO, GOOD WILL HUNTING), to tweak and expand on the aggressively stylized gotholopolis look he created for Alex Proyas’ THE CROW.
This time it looks more real, and has a yellow tint on its foggy (maybe it’s smoggy?), trash-strewn streets, representing the heat of Los Angeles, I hope, and not the piss that it clearly smells of. I don’t know my skylines, so I’m not sure I would’ve understood that they changed the location from Detroit without the subtitle or the cool shot where a row of palm trees burst into flame one-by-one as the crow (the bird that seems to be responsible for resurrecting murder victims, not the vengeful harlequin ghost he enables) flies past them. There’s a great tracking shot of the bird flying over the (model) city, and a profile shot of the ghost speeding on his motorcycle, his feathered friend right in front of him. The movie definitely achieves on levels of technical craftsmanship.
This is a world of fetish and depravity, a society of all fringe, a city of all blight. The businesses that we see operating include a strip club and a tattoo parlor, and even they are rotting and graffitied. There does seem to be a movie theater that runs a midnight show of PEEPING TOM, if the marquee can be trusted. I don’t know who the film buffs are around here who go see Michael Powell movies at night – I doubt it’s the murderous gang of reprobates we spend the most time with. They include Curve (Iggy Pop), Kali (Thuy Trang – the Yellow Ranger!) and Nemo (Thomas Jane, STANDER), all punk weirdos of different types. Pop is effectively grimy as a hateful junkie biker type, Trang uses some of her Power Ranger fighting skills, and has a disgusted pout on her face for the whole movie, even when she’s laying dead in a crow-shaped puddle of blood after falling out a window and bouncing off a parked car.
Jane has the funniest performance and best scene. A voyeur who videotaped the murders that the Crow (this time I do mean the ghost, not the bird) is avenging, he uses shtick like jerking his head back to take a swig of booze, knocking his wig off, then swearing about it. We see him paying for a peep show booth and enjoying the show but his time runs out on the booth right as he’s about to cum. Jane makes great slapstick out of his clumsy scramble to throw more tokens in the slot, and then of course when the window opens again the Crow is standing in place of the stripper he’d been jerkin it to (Holley Chant, EVENT HORIZON). Screenwriter David S. Goyer (who at that point had written DEATH WARRANT, KICKBOXER 2, DEMONIC TOYS and THE PUPPET MASTERS) reused this gag for the ending of BLADE II, which brings me to this movie’s purpose for existing: to serve as a rough draft of the world of BLADE.
I never noticed it before, but there’s a definite blood relation there. This underground world mishmashing various punk and goth subcultures, a scene where he hunts some guys down in a weird dance club, punk-ish villains whose digs combine modernity with ancient artifacts (though leaning more toward the stone-walled temple look in their living area), an anti-hero who drives a motorcycle with his trenchcoat flapping like a cape, on a single-minded mission to destroy them all.
The main thing missing: Blade. This guy is no Blade. He’s also no Brandon Lee. This is a problem. No way to get around this. You notice I talked about secondary bad guy Nemo’s big scene before I even talked about the title character? Unfortunately that’s in line with the impression he makes.
THE CROW was popular for its style and its music and for Brandon Lee. Of course his tragic death during filming added to the mystique of the movie and makes it somehow sacred. Goyer, who had known Lee, knew that being compared to the original was a losing game. He later told Crave Online that his draft had a female Crow, a prologue in Victorian England, and a resurrected Jack the Ripper as the villain! Eventually after much development they had him writing something that was more of a rehash of the first one, and after it was filmed they took it away from director Tim Pope and edited it to be even more like the original.
That was clearly a terrible idea that no reasonable person would consider doing, which is another way of saying this was made by Miramax. We get to know the new protagonist, Ashe Corven (Vincent Perez, QUEEN OF THE DAMNED), even less than we did Eric Draven, and he’s only different in that during the brief alive part he works in a garage instead of playing music, and he’s killed with his son instead of his fiancee. It seems like maybe he’ll be a more HARLEY DAVIDSON & THE MARLBORO MAN type of masculine, but then he gets the makeup painted on and laces up his leather vest and other goth shit and for the rest of the movie he’s just a guy dressed up like Brandon Lee.
Before they show him it seems like it’s gonna be a movie about the original Crow’s young friend Sarah, now grown up and played by Mia Kershner (BLACK DAHLIA). She’s a nice lady in a mean city – when she sees a little wet-haired homeless girl (Beverley Mitchell, the youngest daughter from 7th Heaven) on the street looking like Newt from ALIENS, she brings her into a diner and buys her a meal. Afterwards she has her arm around her and kisses her on the head like she’s her niece or something! Kinda weird. Ashe later finds the girl still on the street and sits with her and says scary things
I know people can change, but it kinda bothered me how much this does not seem like it could possibly be the same Sarah, at least as I remember her from last time I watched THE CROW. The young Sarah was a hoodie-wearing street kid, kind of on the tomboy side. This Sarah is a very familiar type of girly-girl feminine that’s just not compatible with that type, you don’t suddenly pick it up in adulthood. She has an artist’s apartment draped with linen, filled with candles, probly some incense. There’s an easel with a painting in progress, and Eric’s harlequin mask on the wall. She keeps her hair up to show off her long, dancer-like neck, and wears clothes with lace, fur, spaghetti straps, corsets, very feminine cuts.
Seems more like the girl from LABYRINTH grown up to me. I’m not saying it’s impossible for somebody to change that much, I’m just saying, why not stay true to the earlier version?
She also seems out of place in this city of scumbags. She works in the tattoo shop, drawing swirls on people. There’s nobody like her in this city, no one as clean as her. I guess I like that she can hang in this place, but as soon as she discovers Ashe (through her dreams) she’s no longer the lead, she’s just a kind nurturer who caresses his face and looks at him with big, empathetic eyes and then gets held hostage for the big showdown.
The lead villain Judah (Richard Brooks, TEEN WOLF, SHOCKER, THE SUBSTITUTE) is no Michael Wincott, but he’s an okay weirdo – a cruel drug dealer/serious occult dude who usually goes shirtless and has a pet roach leashed by a thread and also pet people in leather S&M outfits and girls who dump candle wax on their skin but despite having this going on right in his home he watches from a monitor in the next room over. Also he has a psychic lady with no eyes (Tracey Ellis, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS), which if I remember right is another greatest hit from the first movie.
So yeah, this Crow guy goes around and one-by-one murders the group who killed him. Because the crow shape made of fire in the first one was memorable, he does fanciful variations on that, like glass shards from an explosion turning into a giant, glimmering bird. The best action part is when he crashes his motorcycle through the side of an overpass, corners Curve and shoots his motorcycle so it explodes, sending him flying. He puts a coin in Curve’s mouth, drags him to the water and he floats away like he’s crossing the River Styx. Random unexplained dudes stand on an overpass dropping rose petals that form the crow shape around him.
Occasionally the Crow does flips and stuff, which I can respect because I would also do that if I found myself being a ghost and it turned out that was one of the powers of being a ghost. In fact I should praise this guy’s restraint because I would pretty much be doing flips at all times.
One strange part is when he finds the murder scene and retrieves his son’s body from underwater. Suddenly he’s burying him in some artificial woods, a set that kind of reminds me of the bridge set in GRAFFITI BRIDGE. In no other part of the movie is there an indication of there being wooded area anywhere near. It seems he actually drove out of town on his motorcycle carrying his dead kid! Glad he didn’t get pulled over.
Especially after seeing two variations on this story you realize that it’s basically a slasher series. Like Jason, Freddy, Cropsey and others, the Crow is someone who has been wronged, has come back from the dead, and is systematically going through a list of victims, tormenting them and using powers, gimmicks and trademarks for different cool kills.
The difference is that you’re supposed to be on his side, so you only get the empty sadism of a bad slasher movie where you hate the protagonists. You don’t get the thrill of the good ones, where you root for the hunted and hold your breath as they hide and cheer as they get away by the skin of their teeth. It’s a very beautifully designed, very intellectually and morally empty slasher movie.
I mean, I’m trying to think about the DEATH WISH movies, it’s been a while since I watched them. But I don’t think there are that many movies that lovingly linger on the bodies of the people the good guy killed. Maybe it’s more honest, but I don’t think it’s for me. (Cool shot, though.)
* * *
After the tragic circumstances of THE CROW, obviously director Alex Proyas is not gonna have anything to do with a sequel. He has said that he completed the movie because he felt it was Lee’s legacy, and wants to leave it that way.
The Weinsteins weren’t gonna leave it that way. So they hired Tim Pope, a veteran music video director known for his work with Soft Cell, The Cure, Neil Young, Psychedelic Furs, Siouxsie and the Banshees and David Bowie. He also directed “Waterfall” and “Sideshow” for Wendy & Lisa! Miramax recruited him on the strength of PHONE, a 30-minute short film starring Bill Pullman, Linda Blair and Amanda Plummer.
Pope had actually befriended production designer McDowell in London in 1979. As a fan of Iggy Pop, he was enamored of McDowell’s design for the Soldier album cover. So it makes sense that the collaboration between these three is strong.
Pop also has a song on the soundtrack, along with Hole, White Zombie, PJ Harvey, fucking Korn and Deftones (who are seen performing at a Day of the Dead celebration toward the end of the movie – they don’t look like they belong there, actually). Representing L.A. hip hop they also have a pretty decent song by Above the Law featuring Frost. The video has some movie footage in it, which would be pretty funny if you didn’t know what it was.
I didn’t notice it – probly coming out of a car or the strip club for like three seconds. I also didn’t realize this has a song by Gravediggaz vs. Tricky. I guess this comes from a short EP from the post-Prince-Paul period.
In case anybody’s not familiar, 6 Feet Deep by Gravediggaz is one of the hip hop classics. It’s a funky horror-themed collaboration between post-De-La-Soul Prince Paul and right-before-Wu-Tang-hit RZA. Here’s a taste:
(I’ve been listening to this for 20+ years and never knew there was a video.)
CITY OF ANGELS was rated R and obviously not a Slurpee type of movie, but in addition to the soundtracks they had a novelization, a making-of book called The Crow: City of Angels – A Diary of the Film, an “Official Movie Magazine” by Starlog, a three-issue comic book adaptation, and even trading cards that came with one rub-on tattoo per pack.
The top left one with the wings seems sort of based on Sarah’s back tattoo, and the one next to that is one that she gives Curve on his chest that’s supposed to be two demons fighting but then he finds out it looks like a crow and comes back and is not a good customer in my opinion (long story). If they ever made an Iggy Pop doll you could put this on him.
Also there was a video game for Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Windows. The cover says “3-D fighting with a vengeance.” It was poorly received and there has not been another CROW-related game since.
Coming at the ass end of its summer, often considered to be a dumping ground (but that’s not always true), THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS opened at #1, besting other new releases FIRST KID, THE TRIGGER EFFECT and THE STUPIDS. But that was most of the money it made, and it dropped to #9 the next week even though the only new one was Adam Sandler’s BULLETPROOF. CITY OF ANGELS made a few million over its reported budget, so overall it probly lost money. It didn’t kill the franchise, though. Rob Zombie – not yet a filmmaker at that time – was hired to direct the post-apocalyptic THE CROW 2037. He wrote it (with the subtitle “A NEW WORLD OF GODS AND MONSTERS”) and it sounds like a good idea to do something so different, so instead they scrapped that idea and did a TV show starring Mark Dacascos (1998) and the movies THE CROW: SALVATION (2000) and THE CROW: WICKED PRAYER (2005). The show was cancelled after one season, the movies barely played in theaters and were even more hated than CITY OF ANGELS.
Starting with Stephen Norrington in 2008, various directors have developed remakes of the first THE CROW, with actors ranging from Bradley Cooper to Jason Mamoa attached for the title character. None have happened yet. CITY OF ANGELS, as the first evidence that THE CROW might not be repeatable, deserves some credit for that failure, I think.
Pope was unhappy with Miramax’s re-editing of his movie, and refused to do a director’s commentary. He has not directed another feature, although he developed THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND and brought Forest Whitaker to it before leaving over disagreements with the studio. Perez has mostly worked in French films, but was screwed by Miramax in another movie with “Angels” in the title; TALK OF ANGELS was filmed the same year as CITY OF ANGELS but sat on the shelf until 1998. Kirshner continued to do American films, but became perhaps best known for TV shows including Wolf Lake, 24 and The L Word. But this was Trang’s final role – she and other bridesmaids for her friend’s wedding were killed in a car accident in 2001, when she was only 27 years old.
That leaves Jane and Goyer as the major players whose careers have grown the most. Just in the next five years, Jane was directed by John Woo, Paul Thomas Anderson (twice) and Terrence Malick. And Renny Harlin. Then he became somewhat of a cult leading man because of THE PUNISHER and THE MIST. He can still do those weirdo character actor performances like Nemo, but it turns out there was a squared-jawed man’s man under there, and we usually have to import those from Australia.
Goyer followed this with Proyas’ DARK CITY and then BLADE. He channeled that success into directing the indie drama ZIGZAG, did two more BLADEs and then BATMAN BEGINS led to his current job as honcho of DC Comics movies. Although he has had a hand in at least four of the best comic book movies made so far, a crude comment about She-Hulk in 2014 has made him a pariah in the comic book community (seriously, there’s a whole big section about that on his Wikipedia page).
THE CROW is a very ’90s phenomenon. Once you take Brandon Lee out of it, it’s nearly impossible to extricate from what was going on with “alternative” music and fashion for young people at the time, or the gloomy emotional landscapes associated with them. For that reason it’s very natural for people who had it in their lives at the right age to have a strong attachment to it. But I think it’s safe to say that most people should stick with the first one.
Those who wronged the Crow have picked an unwinnable fight. Anything they do to try to save themselves is just delaying the inevitable. They made their choice a long time ago and they can’t change it. I think Miramax might’ve been kind of in the same situation. There may not have been a sequel to THE CROW that anybody would’ve accepted. Deep down they must’ve known that, but they had to fuckin try anyway. Spending years and years trying to get a couple more drops out of an empty bottle.
As The Crow himself would’ve said, “[quote from The Cure or somebody that roughly translates to ‘motherfuckers always tryin to ice skate uphill’].”
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.