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The Crow is dead, long live the Crow: the strange curse of Brandon Lee

25 years ago, an accident marked the end of Lee’s life. But the Alex Proyas’s film still resonate

25 years ago, a tragic accident marked the end of Brandon Lee’s life. The son of martial arts superstar Bruce – who also died tragically young in bizarre circumstances – the handsome and buff actor was making a name for himself in Hollywood in decent enough action movies. Yet it was his last film, The Crow, based on James O’Barr’s graphic novel, which would leave its indelible black mark, the terrible accident turning the film into a macabre piece of Hollywood folklore. In the film Brandon plays Eric, a man who has been killed and is brought to life by a crow. He returns from the dead to avenge his girlfriend’s death. Eric is clad in black leather and his face is painted black and white, a ghoulish black grin painted permanently over his mouth. (It comes as no surprise to learn that O’Barr was a big fan of The Cure.)

“Every night I call your name.” Brandon Lee as Eric Draven in The Crow.

He resembles another strange creature: Tim Burton’s invention Edward Scissorhands, even to the extent that they both self-harm by cutting themselves. Yet this is no ethereal hairdresser. Eric is on a mission, with the crow guiding him as he goes about wreaking his revenge. Brandon Lee was focused and happy on set, keen to give his own input. Interviews reveal an intelligent and engaged man with clear ideas about the look and feel of the film. He had worked hard to get into shape, though for a man who had been training in martial arts since he could walk, this was doubtlessly not such a big ask. To see a young man in his physical prime, playing a man brought back from the dead, and knowing that he died on set in a freak accident makes The Crow painful viewing.

Brandon Lee at the Shelly’s grave in another scene of the movie.

The film had been beset with problems. Shooting had been delayed, a carpenter had been badly burnt on set, the Storm of the Century had battered Wilmington, where they were shooting, and then the cast and crew fell ill. Brandon – who had worked hard to keep morale up – was filming a scene with Michael Massee (Funboy). When Massee fired his gun, believing it to contain dummy bullets, a jammed lead tip was fired out of the barrel. Massee hit Brandon in the stomach, perforating his navel and puncturing his aorta. It was a cruel accident, not only for Brandon Lee, but for Michael Massee, who had to live with the terrible knowledge that he had killed a man, however unintentionally.

Memories: Eric Draven’s band called Hangman’s Joke.

The film was finished, and was the first to use methods later seen in Gladiator and Star Wars, in which deceased stars are brought back from the dead technologically. When the film was released, Brandon Lee’s performance was acclaimed. But for the actor who had striven so long to break free of his “son of Bruce Lee” label, his fame would now reside in the events surrounding his demise. In this, he shares a similarity with a fine actor, who died far too young ten years ago this January: Heath Ledger, whose grinning, grotesque Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Batman bears a striking resemblance to Brandon Lee’s Eric.

The revenge.

As the remake of The Crow finally gets underway after a tortuous gestation period that has lasted almost a decade, the role of Eric will be played by Jason Momoa, a worthy successor to Lee, after various names from Mark Walhberg to Bradley Cooper had been bandied about. With comic-book lover Corin Hardy, who made the terrifying horror The Hallow, at the helm and Nick Cave writing the script, the reboot looks to living up to the original and (whisper it) even surpassing it in terms of quality. However, what we all hope The Crow 2.0 will lack is a tragic true-life story to haunt it for years to come. The Crow is dead. Long live The Crow.

Father and son: Bruce and Brandon Lee’s grave, Seattle, Washington.
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