The Crow: City of Angels (1996)

"Have you heard the good word of our lord, Satan?"This film might’ve had a chance, but I doubt it. Love may be stronger than death, but the love of sequels is stronger than common sense, particularly in Hollywood. So I’m not surprised this film turned out to be a pale imitation of its predecessor. Disappointed? Sure. But what did we expect from the man who wrote Dollman vs. The Demonic Toys? Or the man who directed…uck…the Cure’s music videos?

Conceived as an on-going comic book series, the first Crow film benefited from the cohesion a story must have if it’s to be a good film. Only an injection of syrupy, Hollywood sentimentality kept it from being a faithful adaption of its source, with all the problems that implies. Problems of nihilism, transcendental melodrama, and a worshipful respect for death that’s almost Mesoamerican. Problems that provide fertile ground for the true artists to do truly artistic things with J. O’Barr’s depressing little world. The Internet’s littered with them, and digging through the shin-level shelves of certain chain bookstores will also reward anyone in search of a good story set in this universe. You won’t find that here. But if you like gloss and hate originality; if you’re desperate to see a film the confirms all your worst expectations about what Hollywood is, and what horrible things it can do to even the best of stories…pull up a chair, brother/sister. Stay a’ while.

Gotta love that white phosphorus.Meet Ashe (Vincent Perez), humble mechanic and single father to Danny (Eric Acosta). They live together in the burnt out wastelands of Los Angeles, circa nineteen-shitty-nine.  Trash (human and otherwise) and a sickly yellow filter prowl a desolate urban landscape as post-apocalyptic as anything this side of the 70s. The vicious drug lord/crime boss Judah Earl (Richard Brooks) seems to rule over all with an evil as pure as it is unexplained (thanks, Miramax). One night, Ashe and Danny accidentally witness Judah’s gang of toughs executing someone, and are themselves killed in turn, after the obligatory torture. The gunshots that do them in open the film, and their falling bodies are the first things we see. All well and good for a film nominally focused on a vengeful zombie and  his carrion-eating sidekick. But right away, you see the problem?

No? Okay. Meet Sarah (Mia Kishner), whom we last saw in the original film, played by the teenage Rochelle Davis. Obviously past drinking age, we’re left to intuit City of Angels takes place in some nebulously post-apocalyptic future. Right away, I’m curious as to just what the fuck happened to the rest of society. I could give a crap about one guy, or his kid, or his hot Goth Chick, his obvious Love Interest. The old H. G. Welles button is flashing, lighting up my brain, and I’ll spend the whole film waiting for someone to push it. The tension is nerve wracking and, like so much else in this film, unfulfilled. If it did nothing else, City of Angels left people (figuratively and literally) hanging.

"Ask for another tattoo of the Chinese character for love! Go on! I dare you."In any case, Sarah’s obviously moved out of her Devil’s Night-plagued Detroit…notice her portable set of red wings? Huh? Hear that? That’s the film, asking, “Didjagetit?” Yes, thank you. Sarah’s a tattoo artist now, and God only knows what keeps her inside a major urban area, particularly if they all look like this. Her boss acts like the only decent human being on earth. Everyone else appears to do wet work for Judah.

“We all have our pleasures,” Judah informs a henchman he’s about to kill (in true Bad Guy style). “Mine is the pain of others.” Oh, good lord. How much more Fu Manchu can we get? And we’re not even ten minutes into this turkey. Save us from sequels that slavishly imitate their predecessors past the point of all reason…or even good taste.

In any case, Sarah begins the film having prophetic dreams of Ashe’s murder and his eventual resurrection. As the city’s Dia de los muertos celebrations kick into high gear, a crow guides Sarah to the waterfront in time to fish Ashe out of the drink, cart him back home, and make a (poorly edited) attempt to explain just what the hell is going on. But since this is a Crow film, that’s the exclusive province of seizure-inducing flashbacks. In the end, Sarah’s skills with the body brush pays off, Ashe gets his war paint on, and we’re off to the vengeance. Sorta. After the music video.

I know there's a "pussy" joke in here somewhere...Seriously. I count at least four “action” sequences that amount to long excuses to feature the soundtrack’s mediocre cuts. Several of them come complete with shots of the S&M club Judah apparently keeps downstairs. Now, Graeme Revell’s score kicks ass, and whenever it echos over the oft-strained dialogue the film is made better for it…but Miramax’s taste in music sucks. Who’s memo decreed every film from this era feature Rob Zombie? Was this director Tim Pope’s idea? I know I have him to blame for the blurry vision, shakycam, slow motion, all the other pathetic tricks littering the film. Pope’s has yet to make another feature and this film should be all the reason anyone needs as to why. It doesn’t take long for his grab bag of “talents” to annoy me with their calls for attention. In his eagerness to be loved and have his MTV-trained audience “get it,” he sabotages whatever artistic vision he might’ve once had. Miramax did the rest, cutting the film up with a pair of neutered, corporate scissors. This should’ve been an Alan Smithee film for all the damage done to it. All to force a formula on yet another good idea, a pair of gilded handcuffs for J. O’Barr’s creation. Somewhere, Robert Smith is weaping.

In spite of this, and the film’s music video sensibilities, City of Angels takes the occasional stab at actual artistry. Take the scene were Ash walks into an All Soul’s Mass. (And doesn’t that sound like the beginning of a bad joke?) An elderly female parishioner, the most mystical kind, calls him out for what he really is: “Santa Muerte.” Saint Death. They really could’ve made something of this. Instead, its a throw-away scene on our way to Ashe’s inevitable retreading. This film acts downright guilty for having even teased its audience with a glimpse of something different, so Ashe must be depowered as quickly possible. First, the plot grinds to a halt so he and Sarah can inexplicably fall in love. Then, after the obligatory anti-drug scene, Judah’s psychic-in-residence, Sybyl (Tracey Ellis) can tell everyone (like Michael Wincott’s “sister” before her) Ash’s one-and-only weakness…which she somehow, inexplicably knows.

"See my chest?"Out of all the questions they could’ve asked about The Crow‘s world, writer David Goyer picked the least interesting one: “What if I don’t wanna go back?” What if, the film asks, Ashe wants to fall in love with Super Goth Chick the sidekick? Why not ask the bird that’s been riding your ass this whole time, Ashe? It talked to your comic book counterpart, and it seemed to have some line of communication open with Brandon Lee. Or did your little love affair piss it off? What do you see in Sarah anyway? She fished you out of the drink and let you crash at her pad between slayings, but sheesh. Kirshner’s leading lady put me in mind of a crazed Ophelia as played by Joan Burroughs, circa 1953, when the great Beat writer’s wife got heavy into barbiturates. Not that I blame a single person in this film’s Los Angeles for getting high. If I lived in a world the color of urine I’d want to get high too. So would you. Admit it. Just like David S. Goyer should’ve admitted Sarah has no real place in this film.

Think about it. Shelly, Eric Draven’s girlfriend, was an object, as were all the supporting characters in O’Barr’s original work. In that comic, there’s a very strong implication that the events of the main narrative only take place in Eric’s mind  as he lies dying on an emergency room operating table. That kind of myopia fit the self-indulgent nature of the Crow book, but appeared cynical and cliched once this story moved to the big screen. There, it demanded its ancillary characters at least project the illusion of life. In Hollywood, this meant transforming them into stereotypes, mostly negative ones.

Kiss of death.There are no virtuous cops played by former Ghostbusters here. City of Angels dumps us into a world exclusively populated by gangsters and toughs, including such mainstream names as Iggy Pop, slumming, and relative unknowns like Thuy Trang (the former Yellow Power Ranger), committing career suicide. All play one-note, forgettable ciphers, little more than roadblocks on Ashe’s mad dash for the end of his second life.

And someone has to say it: Vincent Perez is ill cast for his role. For all his glam rocker body language, at least Brandon Lee managed to bring a kind of manic humanity to his picture, perfectly befitting a man raised from the dead by forces undoubtedly older than the oldest Testament. Perez just gets shouty, which gets annoying. His quiet moments show a grace and range he might’ve brought to the role under a better directer, or a film in his first language. But he drew Tim Pope, so we’ll never be sure what might’ve been. We’re left to gawk at what is and mock its numerous shortcomings.

So, plotwise, it’s a baldfaced retread of the first film, even using Sarah’s eventual abduction to kick off Act Three. Visually, it’s a sickly, yellow film, ugly as its pulp fiction antagonists. It’s few stirrings of artistry come across as pretensions, deserving only of summary dismissal…as does The Crow: City of Angels as a whole. So this is me, dismissing it summarily.

Half-G

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2 thoughts on “The Crow: City of Angels (1996)”

  1. This movie was atrocious. You know you have problems when one of the villains was the Yellow Ranger on Power Rangers. Also Perez was just awful. Hideously bad, the type of guy who makes you appreciate the subtle charisma of Van Damme and looks more like Jackie Earle Haley with long hair. It’s just atrocious.

    Great review as always. I’m starting to like your site. Good stuff.

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