Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Everybody who saw “The Crow” (1994), a grisly but formulaic back-fr0m-the-dead revenge melodrama, knows actor Brandon Lee died from an accidental gunshot wound on the set during filming.  Strangely enough, Lee’s untimely demise boosted the box office appeal of “The Crow.”  The success prompted Miramax Pictures to release a sequel of sorts: “The Crow: City of Angels.”  Not only have the film producers replaced Lee with another actor, but they also have conjured up an entirely new character.  Sequels typically fail to live up to the high standards of most original films, but “The Crow: City of Angels” (**1/2 out of ****) proves the exception to the rule.  The message of “The Crow: City of Angels,” a nihilistic supernatural sadomasochistic saga, is that love is sometimes stronger than death.  Nevertheless, love takes a backseat to violence in this expressionistic follow-up to the ill-fated but financially successful original.  Instead, the filmmakers aim their cameras like guns at the more unsavory narrative elements: brutal murders and echoes of deviant sexual practices with an incidental node to the love aspect.

The premise of the first “Crow” reechoes throughout the sequel.  When somebody dies, a crow carries the soul to the land of the dead.  Occasionally, something so horrible occurs that a soul can find no rest.  In such a case, the crow leads the soul back to the living so that injustices can be resolved.  David Goyer, who penned the original “Crow,” tinkers rather than tampers with the surefire formula that yielded a $50 million haul at the box office.  A cadaverous hero rises from the grave and destroys a depraved gang of low-life hemorrhoids.  In “The Crow: City of Angels,” a twenty-something auto mechanic, Ashe Corven (Vincent Perez of “Queen Margot”), and his young son Danny (Eric Acosta of “Cheerleader Massacre 2”) witness a gangland execution by a drug kingpin called Judah.

The setting has been changed from the Motor City to the City of Angels.  Instead of hoodlums celebrating Devil’s Night, as in the original, here citizens participate in the Day of the Dead ceremonies designed to discourage departing spirits from lingering with the living.  Eight years have elapsed since the first movie, and Sarah (Mia Kirshner of “Not Another Teen Movie”) is the only hold-over character from the original.  Sarah has grown up, moved to Los Angeles, and now runs a tattoo parlor.  Sarah has been having nightmares lately, about a double homicide.

A crow flies into her apartment, and she follows it to the harbor where the bodies of Ash and his son were dumped.  The crow revives Ashe, and he emerges in a frothy fountain of bubbles before Sarah’s eyes.  When Ashe embarks on his revenge, Sarah paints his face in the same Harlequin pattern as Eric Draven’s from the first film.  Only this time, she uses Ashe’s dead son’s paints, giving it a truly symbolic meaning.  Ashe begins knocking off Judah’s (Richard Brooks) henchmen, working his way, as he calls it “up the food chain” to Judah himself.  The villains comprise an undeniably loathsome bunch.  You’d certainly never invite these scumbags home to meet your parents.  Curve, (plug-ugly Iggy Pop of “Tank Girl”) resembles death warmed over, while a dark smooth-skinned Richard Brooks as Judah presents a commanding presence.  The drug dealing merchant of pain here is so repellent that he display little remorse when a poorly mixed batch of his own narcotics kills his customers.  Every time one of these reptilian characters dies, the image of a crow appears around him.  For example, when Ashe pitches one baddie from a window, the blood from the dead person’s head coagulates in a puddle shaped like a crow.

Compared with the first film, “City of Angels” isn’t as violent.  There is nothing here tha comes off as violent as the table scene where Brandon Lee’s Eric Draven got blasted by a barrage of gunfire.  French heartthrob Vincent Perez animates his slain avenger with a Gallic exuberance.  Perez’s performance also conveys a quality that makes his character vulnerable and at the same time somewhat melancholy because he is deprived of life.  Ashe reveals his reluctance to Sarah to blindly adhere to the fix path that fate has paved for him. Audiences learn the bare minimum about him.  All we know about his wife is that she abounded him and their son after she became a drug addict.  Unlike Eric Draven, Ashe’s body doesn’t erase the signs of violence.  Gunshot wounds don’t magically vanish.  He spends more time tooling about on his motorcycle in search of felons and he never carries the crow around on his shoulder.

Goyer’s episodic script resembles a formula Republic serial from the 1940s.  A mysterious hero enters a destitute city and topples a tyrant.  Compared with the longer original film, “City of Angels” amounts to a severely pared down exercise in minimalism.  The filmmakers have sacrificed exposition, which would clarify characters and story, for supercharged, headlong momentum.  If you’re looking for exposition, try the web site for “The Crow: City of Angels,” because only the most essential information for pushing the plot forward remains in the film.  Goyer and director Tim Pope keep the narrative simple, the characters shallow, and the story free from complications or digressive sub-plots.  Extraneous characters, such as Ernie Hudson’s cop from the first “Crow” don’t clutter up the storyline.

“The Crow: City of Angels” marks the motion picture debut of music-video director Tim Pope.  Previously, Pope helmed music videos for Paul McCartney, Iggy Pop, Queen, and David Bowie.  Pope clearly draws on his background so that his “Crow” boasts a fast-paced, no-nonsense, imagine intensive appearance.  The film possesses a murky, gothic look.  Smoke swirls around the different bombed-out nocturnal settings, and Pope bathes different scenes in harsh, abrasive color schemes.  The wide-angled point of view shots from the perspective of the craw have an avant-garde quality.   Although Pope never overwhelms the gruesome, sadomasochistic elements of the story, this “Crow” flies higher than the original because Pope lets his images tell the story concisely and rarely tarries where another director might have been more indulgent.  Pope proves  himself a more inventive director than Alex Proyas.  He embellishes Ashe’s sartorial transformation as the hero.  Pope shows Ashe snapping, zipping, buckling, and slipping on his symbolic outfit.  The ankle length raven black duster that Ashe dons gives him a crow-life appearance, heightened whenever he crouches on his haunches like the black bird.

While the film focuses on scenes of violence, Pope portrays each with a maximum of feeling but a minimum of gore.  Indeed, the story wallows in one bloody scene after another, but the depiction is never as sanguinary as the events themselves.  You don’t need to have seen “The Crow” to appreciate “The Crow: City of Angeles,” but you might need a strong stomach to digest the cartoon violence, heavy profanity, and scenes of bondage.  The best line of dialogue is: “Life is just a dream on the road to death.”