This film has an enormous fan base for whatever reason. Every Halloween there are at least a dozen people who walk around sporting enough gothic makeup and leather to keep Marilyn Manson happy for at least a decade. Also, considering the tragedy the befell the set (which lead to the death of star Brandon Lee) it seems almost sacrilegious to say that the film is less than a masterpiece.
But frankly, I am not satisfied by the film. The graphic novel was far superior at exploring the themes of loss and pain more than the film. The film is just another typical action movie (a well-directed action movie with great sets) that is short on thought. I don’t know how it has managed to last as long as it have. I certainly don’t know how it has led to three sequels and a TV show. The material ran out of ideas before the first film was over.
The film is about Eric Draven (Lee) who was murdered by a group of street thugs on a night known as “Devil’s Night.” This leads to gangs setting in the hopes that this somehow leads to profit. Anyway, a year later, Eric comes back to wreck vengeance on the people who killed him and his fiance Shelley. A detective, such an important character that I have completely forgotten his name (he’s played by Ernie Hudson) is trying to figure out what is happening, as is young Sarah (Rochelle Davis) who was raised by Eric and Shelley.
The characterization of Eric was the most important part of the story. After all, in the novel, he pretty much is THE only character who is explained in any detail. But his nature was still clouded in mystery, and they did not try to explain what exactly he was. Indeed, Eric in the novel was an ambiguous figure (almost an angel…or a demon)
The film turns him into a sort of nineties superhero. This may have work if it did not take all of the mystic out of the character. We see him rise from his grave, paint his face, and determine the source of his invulnerability. He is also far more garrulous in this adaptation. In the comic, none of this was explained or present. And you know what? It made Eric a far better character. None of this is Lee’s fault. His performance usually helps rather than hinders the character, and he does maintain that morbid sense of humor that character requires. But it was best when so much of him was unexplained, which the film felt it needed to do.
Now, the film is not entirely without merit. The set designs are among the best of the nineties, and this one of the few recent films that manages to create its own self-contained world. The film takes place in a well-defined ruined city that actually seems like it could house such characters. It reminded me a lot of Burton’s Batman. Also, the fight choreography is quite good. There is a particularly memorable scene involving Eric firing from under a table. So, the film does manage to have a hypnotic effect at times.
But the film’s inability (or unwillingness) to maintain the mystique of the original work prevents the film from being as good as it could be. Yes, the action choreography is great. Yes, what happened to Lee is tragic and the film represents a potentially great career cut short. But that’s about all the film is worth. You really want gothic angst? Read the original work. If you want an average action film that just happens to look great, then watch The Crow.