The Crow should have never had sequels. I understand why they happened: the first film did better than anyone had expected it to. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Brandon Lee’s death had people who’d never heard of James O’Barr and his tragic love tale heading to the theatre. There’s no doubt that this successful R-rated comic book movie had executives drooling for more, on-set death of the last leading actor or not.
Enter The Crow: City of Angels. A movie so poorly shot, edited, paced, written, directed, and acted that it makes you wonder how anyone believed it would A) make money, B) entertain people, and C) be respectful of Lee’s death and the legacy that the brand had already created.
This movie was supposed to be something else entirely. Extended scenes, a love story, a brother instead of a son, an ending and villain motivations that made any kind of sense. City of Angels was going to be its own thing until Miramax meddled and demanded it be less its own movie and more like the one that had come before it. I know this, you know this (though if you didn’t know this, click here for a fan edit of the movie that goes over every change made), so I’m making a point to not make this a retrospective about the movie that almost happened. This is a retrospective about the movie that was made. And how shit it is.
Let’s begin… since we have to.
City of Angels is the story of Ashe, a man brought back from the dead by a crow to avenge his and his son Danny’s death after being murdered by a group of drug dealers when the kid witnesses them killing someone else. They’re bound together, Danny shot while Ashe holds him in his arms, before he’s shot and they’re dumped in a river. It’s more or less the same movie as the first film. One of death and revenge and love; this one the love of a father and son though, and not lovers. Even Sarah is here!
What more could you want? What’s that? Something meaningful? Oh, yeah. That would have been lovely! Meaninglessness is something you’ll hear a lot in this retrospective because the damn thing can’t decide what it wants to be and ends up chasing its own tail for an hour and a half! There’s not one thing that has any thought, heart, or soul in it and it’s clear as soon as the thing stars.
Story & Characters
Take Sarah’s reappearance. She’s a vacant, doe-eyed, soulless analogue of the Sarah we knew in the first film. Where’s the young girl that was ready to fight for her life and backtalk to convicted felons? The girl that skateboarded through the dark streets of inner city Detroit with confidence? The girl with spirit, spunk, and any personality at all? The Sarah we’re given here has moved to LA after having a lobotomy. She stares off into space, seemingly unable to make any face but a ‘deer in headlights’ look. She cocks her head to the side and has her jaw slack as she witnesses the world rush past her without being a part of it. She lives in a dirty studio with a skylight that’s broken and open to the elements. I just don’t understand what her character is supposed to be here.
I do know, however, that her character is here to connect this movie with the last. She knows about the crow mythos, and is here to open and close the movie with a rehashing of the speech about love we hear in the first one. All well and good, sequels have characters that roll over more often than not. Problem is, everything is so poorly delivered you’d believe that the actress (Mia Kirshner) has just learned to read and the director thought her stumbling attempts to sound out words was a good enough take to use in a movie! She’s also used, rather unceremoniously, as a yard stick of misery to show how much more life sucks in LA than it does in Detroit. Why would she ever move to LA? Couldn’t she have guessed it would be just as bad (if not worse) than her experiences in Detroit in this alternate universe of wretchedness and despair? Hasn’t she already gone through her trail of fire in inner city Detroit for Christ’s sake? These just aren’t the decisions that the first film’s Sarah would have made. It’s one of many things that will take you out of the viewing experience.
Vincent Perez as Ashe delivers just as poor a performance as Kirshner as Sarah. His accent is bizarre, his hair and clothing even more bizarre still. Who designed this crow? Who thought that putting him in a crop top leather vest was a good idea? No, no, a more important question, who thought to cast this Switzerland born, French film star in the first place? The relationship he has with his child seems so unloving and fake. He talks to the kid like he’s just babysitting him. It feels like Perez couldn’t care less what happens to Danny. That’s a running theme with him though. He’s unable to convey any of the right emotions at the right time and is just as doe-eyed as Sarah. Prepare to watch the two of them make one of one faces throughout the whole damn thing!
Oh, and the gang? Iggy Pop and one of the girls from Power Rangers give the best performance of all of them. And doesn’t that just say all you need to know? Each gang member here seems to be a parallel to one of the gang members in the first film. Richard Brooks as Judah = Top Dollar. Tom Jane as Nemo = Shank. Vincent Castellanos as Spider Monkey = FunBoy. Thuy Trang as Kali = TinTin. Iggy Pop as Curve = T-Bird. No one comes close to any of the performances given in the first film. Iggy Pop and Trang were the only ones that brought any flair to their roles. Not necessarily skill or grace, but flair. Fun fact, Iggy Pop was almost FunBoy in the first one. If it hadn’t been for touring obligations, he would have been the one that fired the gun that accidentally killed Brandon Lee. The more you know, right?
Curve and Kali aside, the others come off anywhere between boring to just fucking awful. Top Dollar had a sociopathic charm to him as the ganglord. He was intriguing and his motivations were unique. Brooks brings as much energy and charm as a dead fish to his role as Judah. Castellanos, the drug lab worker, is given the same greasy, stringy hair as FunBoy. There you go, there’s your junkie character. Jane is shown to be the enthusiastic hanger-on of the gang, just like Skank (who has a total bromance with T-Bird, don’t deny it). He hovers around and records everything that happens with a camcorder. Okay, wow, filming your crime sprees is the best idea I’ve ever heard! Top notch crime-ing there, fella! Besides his genius idea to document every terrible thing he does, his contributions to the film include jerking his dick in a peepshow and… yup, that’s it. A small but clearly important role. I mean, I can’t think of a single great movie that doesn’t involve a scene where a guy awkwardly plays with his junk in a small booth. It certainly made Jaws a better film. And I couldn’t imagine Casablanca without it!
Honestly, the whole thing could have delivered a salacious and entertaining scene had it been acted, directed, or shot beyond: here’s some tits, here’s Tom Jane batting at his junk with his epileptic O face, here’s the tits again, oh no the tits went away, here’s Tom Jane flailing around for something that will allow him to see the tits again. It’s voyeuristic garbage the way it stands.
Here’s a quick tip before we move on: if you’ve got seven main characters in your movie, you should aim for more than two of them being any good!
Horrific acting spoken for, there’s still shit like all the unnecessary Christ imagery and subtext. Not that it’s subtext when it’s literally smacking you in the face the whole time. There’s a burned out neon sign that says Jesus Saves. Ashe is raised from the dead and walks on water. Ashe is strung up and whipped in front of an uncaring crowd. Sarah has a cross cut into her forehead. The Crow franchise has always been one that’s tied up in myths and religion but this is just taking it too far. It’s about as subtle as stigmata! Here’s a movie that takes a weirdo, S&Mer, drug dealer with a God complex. They name him Judah. They place him right in the middle of any temptation you can imagine: sex, drugs, rock and roll. Guess who the bad guy is. I mean, this whole story seems to want us to believe that sexuality immediately equates evilness. Give me a fucking break, would you?
There’s even cut scenes of Ashe accosting a stripper to ‘collect what’s left of her soul and never come back’. Why the fuck should Ashe care about the sex trade? His son wasn’t kidnapped and sold into it. He wasn’t murdered by strippers. Nothing, and I mean nothing, in his past or present needs to be tied to sex. If you want to make Judah own an S&M club, whatever, everyone villain needs a lair; but not every movie that takes place in LA needs to show it as a hive of sexual deviants.
Oh, but it’s named the City of Angels and the juxtaposition is just too good to pass up! Bite me. That’s lazy, overdone, and just not in any way what this story is about. This is supposed to be about a father coming back to avenge the death of his little boy but instead we get lessons about piety and modesty. Meanwhile the original script called for Ashe to more or less bone Sarah on sight. So, like, what are they trying to tell me? What points do they want to get across? At an hour and a half, the whole thing feels like a shortened Catholic service. Not exactly what I look for in my movies.
Beyond this completely befuddling set of themes is a story that doesn’t know how to… story, for lack of a better way of putting it. The first film opened with the tragedy of Shelly and Eric’s deaths. This story opens with some blurry, dream-quality shots of maybe something bad happening. We’re not getting the story first hand, we’re getting it second hand through dreams, and then third hand through piss-poor acting. It’s impossible to care about any of these characters the way the story is told. Another quick tip: you want people to care about your characters!
Then there’s all the subtle nuances from the first film, all the mysticism of what exactly the crow is that gets thrown out the fucking window. Everything is at face value. The crow brought back Ashe therefore if you kill the crow and drink its blood, you’re invincible. Gone is Myca’s quiet, otherworldly knowledge, to be replaced by a literal witch that wears a literal hooded robe and literally sees the future with a hundred percent accuracy. All the hows and whys of what’s happening are spelled out before all the gang members are even dealt with.
Right up there with story and acting, effects are terrible. The Crow had a bigger budget than City of Angels, but a lot of that was put into the digital effects that were used to finish the movie after Lee’s death. On a level playing field, the two films seem to have had close to the same amount of money at their disposal. Where the hell did it go in City of Angels? With their stuffed crows on fishing line, it definitely wasn’t put into making the bloody thing look good!
Let’s start with the most glaring issue: the action. There’s not an action scene in this movie that looks or feels right. It’s pitiful in how poorly this so-called action movie is choreographed and shot. There’s no sense of immediacy to anything that happens: it’s there, but why? When Ashe goes mano-a-mano against each gang member, it’s just a sloppy sequence of events that ends in one form of violence or another. In the first movie, TinTin used knives, Eric ran him through with his own knives. FunBoy was a junkie, Eric overdoses him. T-Bird specialized in explosives, Eric sets a bomb off in the trunk of his car. Skank threw Eric out a window, Eric throws Skank out a window. Top Dollar caused Eric all this pain, Eric gives Top Dollar all the pain back. You see where I’ve gone with this? City of Angels has Ashe blowing up a drug lab, gouging out eyes, throwing people out windows, exploding motorcycles, and using a flock of crows to dematerialize a guy and send him to purgatory.
Why should I care about any of this? The movie doesn’t know, so I have no hope of knowing. There’s no symbolism left in this movie. Just violence. And not even beautiful violence. There was a sort of poetry to Eric’s cruelty. City of Angels presents it (much like the mysticism) as the lowest common denominator. Take for example his fight with Kali. She’s the one that killed Danny right in front of him. There should be an energy in this fight that conveys how much he despises this woman, how much he wants her to suffer. But there’s nothing! Ashe does some flips, Kali talks big and then fights back like she doesn’t care if she lives or dies, Ashe says something that’s supposed to have meaning, Kali dies in a way that’s not significant to anyone. Perez can’t pull the right emotions out and the whole thing comes off jarring and disjointed. Kali doesn’t pull out anything close to David Patrick Kelly’s realization that he’s going to die. No one learns or regrets anything. Each brutal kill that Eric committed was cathartic. Each brutal kill that Ashe committed was, surprise surprise, meaningless.
Remember in the first film, the scene with Eric in T-Bird’s car and how fast and dangerous that scene felt? Yeah, don’t get your hopes up that you’ll be seeing any of that here. There’s a motorcycle chase about two thirds of the way in between Ashe and Curve and it’s just the most boring thing you’re ever going to see. There’s no sense of speed, danger, or urgency. There’s no stunts. Just a bunch of close up shots of Iggy Pop looking a touch nervous in the toxic green light that permeates the whole movie. Christ, if you’re only giving it half your attention, you won’t even know that Ashe is part of the chase!
Speaking of the toxic green glow that is this movie’s main colour, I hate it. I get that this isn’t actually LA but an alternate LA that’s corrupted and sickly beyond any hope. Detroit was painted with the same stylized brush in the first movie. The setting is meant to be its own character that adds to the story. But whereas the first film’s colours are black, blue, and red to show evil, sadness, pain, and anger, City of Angels goes for a greeny-yellow that’s reminiscent of dog vomit when they eat too much grass. The colour didn’t create a moody atmosphere. It made everything look fake. Even with the various pollutions of a big city like LA (light pollution and haze) there’s nothing that would create the greeny-yellow used and it’s obnoxious in its obviousness.
The whole LA landscape is obnoxious. The first movie was miniature sets due to budgets, and they thought to do that again with City of Angels but there’s no allure to it. In the toxic green lighting it’s clearly tiny buildings and a camera in someone’s hand swooping by them. The actual sets that actors find themselves on are just smoky voids. You can’t see three feet beyond the smoke. Just imagine the foggiest soap opera dream sequence you can and it’s not anywhere close to how they choose to show LA.
The first movie felt like Detroit (or a city at the very least). The buildings were claustrophobically close and rundown. LA isn’t like that. It’s more spread out, it’s vaster, and most importantly, it’s a city that’s still alive and thriving. You don’t see that anywhere in this movie. Settings feel like this is a shitty stage production as they try and fail to duplicate what was created in the first film. If you’ve never seen City of Angels and are curious about their set design, put up a simple wooden fence, turn on a smoke machine, and back-light it all with some ostentatious colour. There you go, that’s this whole fucking movie!
What makes the horrible set design so much worse is the fact that they missed out on doing some really awesome things with the Day of the Dead. Yeah, this movie takes place on Dias de los Muertos and the best it can do is give you smoky LA back alleys and the ugliest sugar skull masks on a handful of people right at the very end. How incredible would a Mexican crow coming back on the Day of the Dead have been? I’m foaming at the mouth just thinking about it! And then crying bitter tears that such a great opportunity was completely missed.
The one nice thing I have to say about the cinematography in this movie is that the scene where Ashe and Sarah are talking while standing on different sides of gauzy curtains is the most beautiful and clever shot in the movie. In the original script, there was more of a love story between the pair and Ashe was going to stay in the world of the living for her. The gauzy curtains show how they’re on different plains of existence. They can see each other, but it should be left at that. I think it’s the one bit of clever storytelling that made it through the executive hack-and-slash that City of Angels became.
Besides that, do I have anything nice to say? Well, I can confidently say that the music is literally the only reason this movie isn’t a total loss. Graeme Revell returns as the composer and the music of City of Angels is the only reason to have anything to do with this pile of shit. It’s a darker score, with less moments of levity compared to the first. City of Angels’ score focuses less on the wilder, more tribal sounds of the first film and more on hymnal numbers. The sequel depends a lot more on Christ-related imagery, so I’m not surprised. Revell worked with what he was given and made the best of it.
My one major gripe with the music (and is surely an executive decision) is the reusing of some of the most iconic tracks from the first film. It feels sloppy and tacked on. The song A Dream on the Way to Death and A Lament for a Lost Son reuses Believe in Angels, the number that plays when Shelly’s spirit returns for Eric’s. It’s such a beautiful moment in the first film. It means something there: it’s closure that the horror is done and they can now rest in peace. But in City of Angels it’s haphazardly dumped in the middle. Nothing has been accomplished by this point in time. Ashe has only killed two of the gang members and neither of them played any direct role in what happened to him. The reusing of Believe in Angels is meant to tie the two films together, but all it manages to do is make me feel violated when they reprise the original score.
The Crow: City of Angels is what happens when clueless studio executives are put in charge to make money and not art. I understand what movies are. I know that they have to be a series of coincidences that move along the story. But City of Angels is too much. There’s not one believable chain of events within this movie! A kid runs towards what are clearly gunshots being fired in inner LA? Sarah just happens to live near the neighbourhood where a new crow is coming back? The bad guy has a witch that has all the answers? The bad guy drinks the crow’s blood and becomes the god he’s always fancied himself? A crowd watches a man get strung over a lamp post with a noose around his neck while another man viciously whips him and no one does anything? A murder of crows phases through Ashe and Judah and Judah dies but Ashe is fine? It’s like the crew drew adjectives and names out of a hat and then held them together and that’s the scene they would film that day!
The Crow is a story that requires intricacy and nuance. Putting everything at face value is insulting to James O’Barr, Brandon Lee, and us, the audience and fans. There was potential here for an experiment that used The Crow’s brand but stood apart from the first movie. The first movie made money though, so City of Angels was doomed. Brandon Lee died for the first movie, and yet this one feels like the bigger tragedy!
I’m looking forward to the third movie The Crow: Salvation after this… And that’s the first time that phrase has ever been uttered.