Time is relative right now. The jury’s still out on any semblance of a summer movie season. Thus, the Midwest Film Journal is celebrating — at least in the astronomical sense — Endless Summer. In this intermittent series, which will run through the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22, we’ll look back at summer films from seasons past. Big, small, light, heavy, wild successes and weird misfires. Our multiplex is full and open for Endless Summer.
In 1996, comic-book movies had about the same batting average as video-game adaptations do today. To give you some idea, the other two superhero flicks to open up the same year as The Crow: City of Angels were the Billy Zane / Indiana Jones knock off The Phantom and the ill-fated Pamela Anderson vehicle Barb Wire, less a film and more a series of loosely connected scenes where Anderson runs around in lingerie on futuristic cardboard sets. So while City of Angels may be as stupid as those aforementioned titles, it’s infinitely more fascinating.
It’s not like director Alex Proyas’ 1994 original offered anything challenging per se. The story concerned undead rock star Eric Draven — decked out in Alice Cooper makeup and leather, of course — out for revenge after he and his fiancée are murdered by a group of cartoonish junkies. The production design, on the other hand, was visionary. It pushed the looming gothic skyscrapers and German expressionism of the Gotham City from Tim Burton’s Batman to even bleaker extremes. As Draven (memorably played by the late Brandon Lee) executes each wrongdoer one by one — spouting vague poetry like “Victims, aren’t we all?” — one might dismiss the entire enterprise as a Hot Topic wet dream for 12-year-olds. But as with most wet dreams, it’s just as intoxicating as it is embarrassing.
Rushed into production and released two years later, City of Angels (helmed by Cure music video veteran Tim Pope) is the rare sequel that doubles down on both the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor. If the first Crow was akin to Burton’s Batman, this falls more in line with Schumacher’s Batman Forever (the series doesn’t go full Batman & Robin until the derisible 4th entry The Crow: Wicked Prayer), jacking up the hammy performances and dialogue to uneven results.
Vincent Perez, replacing Lee, trades in the latter’s gloomy charisma for a lunatic intensity. His character, Ashe Corven, doesn’t feel melancholy and mournful like Eric Draven. He feels unhinged and murderous. Despite a backstory that’s nearly identical to Draven’s (a young son is substituted for a murdered fiancée), Perez’s stagy turn is a noteworthy deviation from Lee’s.
The words coming out of Perez’s mouth, however, are less than ideal. The goofy pseudopoetry of the original is replaced with hardcore ditties like, “I’m all your nightmares rolled into one!” Too true. City of Angels’ script was written by none other than David S. Goyer, who would soon become a staple in superhero adaptations, particularly Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. You must be thinking: “Hey, but those movies have excellent scripts!” Generally speaking, yes, but it’s also easy to imagine the cringeworthy Batman Begins line “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me,” feeling right at home here.
The cast of evil lowlives, so memorable in the previous entry, make the post-apocalyptic goons from the Mad Max series look like Wall Street daytraders. With names like Curve, Nemo and Spider Monkey, they are out-and-out caricatures and played as such; they shriek, slither and squirm at every given moment. Iggy Pop especially pushes the limits of what can in good conscience be called a performance. Objectively terrible on just about every level, he brings a commitment from which it’s hard to look away. And one can’t forget Thomas Jane’s courageous turn in a bowl-cut wig as Nemo, a poor soul who meets his end jerking off.
Where this sequel truly excels, and even surpasses, what came before it is in the cinematography and production design. City of Angels was shot by the late Jean-Yves Escoffier, an arthouse vet through and through who was the director of photography on everything from Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge to Harmony Korine’s Gummo. Visually, there are sequences here that can go toe-to-toe with Escoffier’s best work, and City of Angels rises head and shoulders above the rest of the series in that regard.
Switching the Detroit setting to Los Angeles, Escoffier and the production team drenched their cityscape under an oppressive green-and-piss-yellow smog, and nearly every dilapidated fixture of this hellscape is covered in ashen dust. (Seriously, it’s rare to even see a car that isn’t bombed-out to a crisp.) It’s a hellscape you couldn’t imagine any of the baddies from the first movie surviving for a day. The miniatures that make up the many aerial views we get of the city are equally stunning, a place perverted past the point of bearing any semblance to even the comic-book worlds that came before it.
The film also has an inexplicable fascination with S&M imagery. One of our first scenes meeting Judah Earl (Richard Brooks), the head baddie, shows him watching a topless, gimp-masked woman pouring wax upon a bound-and-gagged victim — all while video cameras document the grainy footage on surrounding screens. This City of Angels has the queasy tone of a bad mushroom trip.
If you haven’t gathered as much by now, The Crow: City of Angels is one of the geekiest movies in an incredibly geeky franchise. This goes far beyond offering the catharsis of your standard revenge film; no, this is simply about the amount of mileage you can get out of a guy in harlequin face paint making grave pronouncements before he shoots someone in the head. In all fairness, the Weinsteins reportedly butchered director Pope’s initial 160-minute cut into an 85-minute carbon-copy of the original’s story. Still, If you can tap into the same sensibilities you had when you were 12 years old, there’s plenty to peck at among what was left here.