“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”- Matthew 5:4
Today marks the 15th anniversary of Brandon Lee’s death. If you recall, Lee died while filming “The Crow” in Wilmington, N.C. During a scene in which his character, Eric Draven, was supposed to be shot and killed, Lee himself met his demise when a prop gun that was supposed to fire blanks discharged the tip of a .44 caliber bullet, due to a mishap involving a dummy cartridge. The bullet pierced Lee’s abdomen and damaged his internal organs, eventually settling in his spine. Despite surgery to save him, Lee died of internal injuries, blood loss and heart failure.
Following Lee’s tragic and senseless death, Edward R. Pressman, co-producer of “The Crow,” told Entertainment Weekly that he hoped the loss of Lee would become “less interesting than the movie itself. The point is not to remind people of the tragedy.”
Fifteen years later, however, it’s impossible to watch “The Crow” without being reminded of Lee’s death. For one, the tragedy changed the direction of the film—about a rock musician who rises from the dead to avenge his murder and his fiancée’s with help from a crow.
“It became about how you deal with grief,” film makeup artist Lance Anderson told Entertainment Weekly after Lee’s death. “What happens when someone you love is taken from you? How do you incorporate that into your life?"
Ernie Hudson, Lee’s costar, agreed. He told Entertainment Weekly that the film shifted from being a dark, vengeful tale into “a really nice, beautiful love story” following Lee’s death.
The tenderness that can be found in an otherwise dark film—more than two dozen murders take place amidst a dreary, industrial setting—isn’t the only reason Lee’s death comes to mind. There’s also the fact that Lee’s life so mirrored his character’s. Like Eric Draven, Lee was supposed to wed just days after the fatal mishap.
James O’Barr, creator of “The Crow” comic book the film was based on, noted this parallel in an interview. “And the fact that he was about to get married, and the fact that his fiancée, Eliza, was with him all the time, that perfected that image of Eric and Shelly I had in the book,” O’Barr said.
More than anything, though, it is Lee’s breakthrough performance in the film that seemingly most upsets fans about his death because we’ll never get to know how his acting would have advanced. I’ve watched a few of Lee’s earlier films—“Legacy of Rage,” “Showdown in Little Tokyo” and “Rapid Fire.” In none of these films do we get even a glimmer of the talent that Lee exhibits in “The Crow.” In Hong Kong film “Legacy of Rage,” we get a cute, boyish Brandon, but, because of the film’s poor quality and the fact that his voice is dubbed, it’s difficult for the viewer to get a real sense of Lee in the film. In “Showdown in Little Tokyo,” a gratuitously violent and misogynistic film, Lee is limited to being Dolph Lundgren’s sidekick. He’s on the sidelines as Lundgren saves the day and gets the girl. As if that weren’t emasculating enough, Lee’s character actually has to compliment Lundgren on the size of his manhood. “In Rapid Fire,” Lee is somewhat redeemed. It is he who gets the girl and saves the day, showing flashes of charisma. Unfortunately, his acting in the film is pretty cardboard.
In “The Crow” that changes for the Emerson College theater major. Unlike his earlier films, “The Crow” is in no way dependent on martial arts and is a step up from conventional vengeance tales in that it is filled with literary references—from the Bible to Paradise Lost to "The Raven." There’s also a wonderful soundtrack and poignant score.
“I think Brandon would have been very, very proud of the movie. He is so good in this,” Hudson told Entertainment Weekly. “All of the (qualities) he had as a person come through.”
O’Barr credits Lee’s performance in the film with giving him a career boost. “Eventually I had to accept that Brandon was a huge part of my success because he was so faithful to the character—so much to the point that now I can’t even picture anyone else in that role,” O’Barr told an interviewer. “I guess that says a lot for his performance and his impact on me.”
The reason “The Crow” has had a cult following since its 1994 release is because Lee manages to give a performance in which he is at points mad, heartbroken, comical and enraged, sometimes simultaneously. He gives one-word responses that are devastatingly bittersweet, such as when Sarah, a little girl his character is friends with, asks if he is a clown and he answers, “Sometimes.” In that very brief instance, the viewer feels Eric Draven’s humor and sadness, alike. There are many moments in which Lee says nothing at all but gets his point across, such as when a group of children, donning makeup similar to what his character wears, passes by, and he laughs in a maniacal manner that somehow manages to highlight Eric Draven’s loneliness as well. “The Crow” is filled with such moments, which, remarkably, don’t appear staged. It feels, as his costar Ernie Hudson hinted at, that we’re getting the authentic Brandon Lee in the film.
My only theory as to why Lee excelled so at playing a grief-stricken avenger is that he had experienced the loss of his father, martial arts icon Bruce Lee, at a young age. Based on interviews Lee gave, the loss left him both heartbroken and furious. Lee’s impending marriage to Eliza Hutton also allowed him to experiment with how crazed he would feel if a group of thugs raped and murdered his fiancée, he said in interviews.
Because he so masterfully channeled his life experiences, “The Crow” is a touching study in grief. And, yet, it goes beyond grief. The end of the film suggests that love survives even death, just as Brandon Lee’s brilliant work has survived him in death, comforting one group of mournful filmgoers after another.