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The Crow: Salvation
Reviewed by Shane Ivey, © 2003

Format: Movie
By:   Bharat Nalluri (director), Chip Johannesen (writer)
Released:   2000
Review Date:   January 09, 2003
Audience Rating:   PG-13
RevSF Rating:   1/10 (What Is This?)

The following review was written in August of A.D. 2000. It was written in the early morning, moments after an inconsolable Joe Crowe and an embittered Shane Ivey survived the trip back to their hotel after attending a midnight screening at DragonCon. That screening turned out to be one of the only public presentations of this film ever. Now the film is available for purchase or rental. Heed this review, and rent or purchase it not.

I went into the screening of "The Crow: Salvation" wanting to love it. I loved "The Crow." I thought "The Crow: City of Angels" was a misfire, but I could see the kernels in it of what made "The Crow" great. With "Salvation," I wanted to see a Crow movie which would return to the thematic and stylistic roots while exploring new ground, new storylines and permutations of the themes. Of course, I've heard many fans say we can't compare the Crow sequels to the original film, but that's just wrong. If it's not supposed to be related to the original, then drop the original from the title: there's no examining "The Crow: Salvation" without looking back to "The Crow." That's the price of capitalizing on a franchise.

The best moments in "The Crow: Salvation" are those when it most resembles "The Crow," when the mystical crow itself takes wing and flies over bleak, glowing cityscapes to a grinding post-industrial soundtrack. In those moments, it's easy to feel a little of the grim, vengeful glee which The Crow manifested. Unfortunately, those moments are the exception.

"Salvation" opens with scenes of a prison and a young man, Alex Corvis, on Death Row, convicted of brutally killing his girlfriend. Guards haul Alex into the execution chamber. They strap him down and cover his face with a Man in the Iron Mask helmet. Asked if he has any last words, Alex protests that he loved his girlfriend and did not kill her; he has said all along that a man with a zig-zag scar on his arm planted the killing knife in his car. As executioners in full-body black Ninja garb pull the switch, Alex sees the zig-zag scar on the arm of someone in the observation chamber--and at that moment, lightning hits the prison, overloading the circuits (or something) so that he fries spasmodically for a good thirty seconds before they shut it down. We see the mystical crow flying outside, heading for a window, heading for the cold chamber where Alex's corpse is stored awaiting autopsy. Alex wakes up, and it's time for Crow-styled vengeance.

Poor Little Crow Guy

The Crow -- and, by extension, its sequels -- is about outsiders overcoming their isolation, victims beyond the protection or care of the mainstream taking their own justice from those who abuse their isolation. It's about death and our primal reactions to it, our fear of it and anger at it, brought to a quick head by the inexcusable violence of cold-blooded murder. Director Bharat Nalluri, who apparently helmed two English action flicks in 1997 and 1998 ("Downtime" and "Killing Time" - does that make this "Crow Time"?), frankly makes a mess of the juxtaposition of moods, the sorrow and wrath, which originally gave "The Crow" a sense of depth and brooding Gothic style beyond its teen-Death Wish storyline.

"The Crow" gave just enough of a glimpse into the hero's memories and mourning to make him sympathetic without distracting us from the well-deserved savagery that he was there to visit upon his enemies; "Crow" director Alex Proyas is hardly the most prolific of directors, but between "The Crow" and "Dark City" it's clear that he has a knack for this sort of thing. If only they had called him back for the sequels. The pacing in "Salvation" is disjointed, the dialog is too often stilted, and the symbolism and preachifying are as heavy-handed as you can get. (About to take his final vengeance in a prison, Alex stands beneath a big sign that reads "Retribution". Get it?) "The Crow: Salvation" trades the gruesomely over-the-top bondage shots and eyeball abuse of "City of Angels" for lengthy, weepy, clumsily-cut tearjerkers, sepia-toned flashbacks of his dead girlfriend and moonlit back-alley crying jags with his dead girlfriend's sister, and the result is just as poorly-balanced.

It doesn't help that young Eric Mabius simply lacks the emotional and physical presence to pull off such an archetypal anti-hero. Brandon Lee's performance in "The Crow" complimented the director's stylish darkness perfectly, defining "brooding intensity" for the entire genre. Lee had an uncanny physical presence, a sense of feral, graceful menace and power that literally embodied the vengeance he represented. In "Salvation," Eric Mabius manages a few terrific psychopathic smiles, but mostly he just looks lost and lonely. (Actually, he looks a lot like Blossom's older brother. No, not Joey Lawrence. The other one.)

We feel sorry for poor undead Alex, sure, but is the audience's dominant reaction to him supposed to be little-brotherly pity? "Oh," you think, "poor little Crow guy. He looks so vulnerable." A more accomplished director, or one with Proyas' enthusiasm for the dark material and scenery, might have worked Mabius' persona into the story; instead, it's like watching a half-rate director pull a "Crow" remake with an inexperienced lead.

Oh, right. That's exactly what it is.

Mabius co-stars with the better-known Kirsten Dunst, of "Interview With the Vampire" and "E.R." fame. Dunst pulled off her "Interview" performance ably as a child, as the cruel old vampire trapped in a child's body, but here she just doesn't have much to do and she doesn't do it very well. She cries a lot. She tearfully confronts people a lot. She eventually pulls stitches out of her face. Emily Dickinson, this isn't. (Although sometimes I wished it was -- and I never thought I could say THAT with a straight face.)

Grant Shaud (Miles Silverberg from "Murphy Brown") supports as Alex's loyal lawyer. His character has some good emoting, but mostly he's a plot device to point Alex toward the final villain when the Crow magic stops working. (From now on, I think every darkly violent action film should have a cast member of "Murphy Brown" in it.)

As for the villains, a gang of corrupt cops, they are mostly interchangeable. After Alex does the Crow thing to the first one, you've pretty much seen it all, with slight variations in the special effects. He stabs them (just like they stabbed his girlfriend!), he blows them up (funny how that one car going up will cook off a half a dozen cars nearby and a helicopter overhead), he shoots them, and he smiles nastily at them.

Poor Fred Ward is just pitiful as a villain straight out of "The A-Team" (if it was an R-rated A-Team, of course, with a lot of knives and scalpels and some lackluster sex-club shots), the sort of bad guy who gets stuck with gloating impromptu speeches for all the plot exposition that the screenwriter forgot to include earlier in the movie. A police captain in apparently a big city, he works out of a tiny, poorly-lit office with peeling dark green paint, exposed pipes, and a giant American flag hanging on one wall (for, you know, the irony). Its treatment of police culture is the last place to start talking about the script's credibility issues, but you get the idea: Fred Ward always seems like he has some acting chops in him somewhere, if only he could quit doing B-movies with dialog that's bad beyond camp.

Who Stole the Script?

So, what about this screenplay? Writer Chip Johannessen has producing and occasional writing credits in two other dark genre classics, "Millennium" and the brutal, brooding "Beverly Hills 90210." But his resume as screenwriter before "The Crow: Salvation" consisted of exactly zero motion pictures, and I'll be surprised (and disappointed) if it gets any fatter after this. The dialog is bad. It's just bad. The villains sneer or scowl; the hero smiles coldly and mourns tearfully; the hero's innocent young friend learns her lesson--this episode's theme is Learning to Cherish Life--after much weeping and violence.

Goth clichÈs like graveyard statues crying blood and sub-dom gear in a blue-lit sex club seem like a haphazard attempt to capture some of the style of the first two movies. (Although they do update it for the 21st century by showing cameras in the sex club attached to what is meant to be an Internet server, complete with a real-time counter showing how many hits they're getting microsecond by microsecond, because the bad guys are just evil like that.) And the plotting is, well, unsubtle. A gunshot victim leaves a clue, while his murderers watch, by circling a face in a newspaper with his own blood and standing a game piece upright. The plot isn't advanced, it's bludgeoned along.

There are a few good one-liners (it's a Crow movie, there have to be a few good one-liners), but whenever the characters have to interact, things go downhill. When Fred Ward's evil police captain gets rolling, it just gets laughable. "The crow... a sign of death returned to life. The dead can return, given sufficient motivation. I've studied this phenomenon before." When I mean laughable, I mean the crowd of hardcore Crow freaks, guests at a free screening of the only domestic print of this movie months before it will hit theatres, was laughing out loud.

As for the hero, Alex shifts from whining to sadism without a blink. Kirsten Dunst's job as grieving young sister is to learn from all the tragedy and come to cherish her life and not waste any of it, so when she starts crying that she wants to die Alex jumps down, grabs her head, and gives her flashbacks of her sister being stabbed and shot to death. The dead sister fought for her life, so how dare the baby sister talk about giving it up? Okay, he has a point, but it's a little hard to maintain sympathy for Alex when he's psychologically traumatizing his dead girlfriend's sister.

Will Salvation Kill The Crow?

I love good horror, good fantasy, and good science fiction. Those genres serve a vital function in literature and cinema, expanding the perceptions of readers and viewers and priming us for a sense of wonder, grandeur, and dread that other genres can rarely achieve. By the same token, I loathe lousy genre work. When a writer or director or producer thinks he can cash in on the genre with nothing more than a few flashy effects or costumes, that lousy product gives the whole genre a bad name and makes its fans look like fools. Not to mention that it wastes our valuable time.

If you love "The Crow," read the comics. Watch the first movie. I've heard the TV show isn't bad. But don't bother with "Salvation." In the four or five hours that I spent viewing and then writing about "The Crow: Salvation," I could have been writing a story of my own... or I could have been reading something great... or watching old "X-Files" reruns... or playing with my kids... or trading jokes with my wife or my friends. Instead of stewing and shaking my head in disappointment, I could have been enriching and cherishing my life. And wasn't that the whole point of "The Crow: Salvation?" Of course it was. Kirsten Dunst said so at the end. And I bet she didn't see a bit of the irony in that.

Where Are They Now?

RevolutionSF.com producer Shane Ivey has spent the last four years working with a guy named Crowe, so he knows ALL about it.

Writer Chip Johannsen's talent was apparently reborn thanks to a mystical crow, for he has now found redemption as a writer for "24." Of course, as far as we know, he may just write the crappy parts with Jack's daughter.

Kirsten Dunst went on to appear in a far better superhero movie, one in which the hero did not inflict psychological pain upon her, except in the end when he kicked her to the curb.

Eric Mabius, the brightest star of the new millennium, went on to portray "Jake" in "Resident Evil." Apparently, he has been working out. Bow before the power of Mabius!

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