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Remembering Brandon Lee : Twenty Years After His Death

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Drew Turney remembers a talent that was taken from us too early, 20 years ago this year.

By the time Bruce Lee died from a cerebral edema at the age of 32 in 1973, he had no idea that a little over 20 years hence, a renewed love of his films would make him a modern Van Gogh, revered for his work among serious moviegoers years after his life ended.

As Tarantino whipped up a love of cult cinema far and wide, it put Lee on the pinnacle of cine-literate appreciation. Today he shares it with contemporaries that likewise got little respect back when they were churning out grindhouse horror, martial arts epics and spaghetti westerns back in the 70s and 80s.

In fact, the Tarantino effect came a little too late for Lee’s son – actor and fight choreographer Brandon – as well. His final film, ”The Crow”, was released the same year ”Pulp Fiction” catapulted Tarantino to the top (1994). The ascent of the alternative indie aesthetic from studios like Miramax and Dimension Films meant the schlocky, straight to video punch-em-ups Lee had made in his short career were suddenly viewed in a new light.

Cineastes who’d once worshipped Fellini and Godard now extolled the virtues of syrupy dialogue, hackneyed stories and over-the-top fight scenes from the likes of Cynthia Rothrock, Mark Dacascos, Brian Bosworth and Eric Roberts (with Robert Davi firmly installed as a go-to villain).

After appearing in Hong Kong action film ”Legacy of Rage” (Long zai jiang hu, 1986) and playing an assassin in David Carradine’s ”Kung Fu: The Movie” (1986), Brandon Lee’s fighting ability caught the eye of the industry. Offered a contract by Fox, his movie career began in earnest.

Films like 1989’s ”Laser Mission” and 1992’s ”Rapid Fire” were fairly run of the mill, giving him plenty of fight scenes but pretty flat characters. He gave us the first glimpse of what he could really do in between the two with Mark L Lester’s ”Showdown in Little Tokyo” (1991). With films in Lester’s back catalogue called ”Extreme Justice” and ”Instinct to Kill”, you might dismiss him as just another straight to video action hack, but he also directed the adaptation of Stephen King’s ”Firestarter” (1984) starring a post-ET Drew Barrymore, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ”Commando” (1985) and he was the screenwriter behind ”Class of 1984” (1982).

Lee starred opposite Dolph Lundgren, himself on the way to big screen stardom as Rocky Balboa’s Russian opponent Drago in the Cold War parable of ”Rocky IV” (1985). Lundgren is an LA cop who lives and loves Japanese culture, teaming up with Lee as Valley Boy detective Johnny Murata, a Japanese-American kid who knows a life only of ‘malls, MTV and borrowing Dad’s car for the weekend’ despite his ethnic heritage.

Lundgren is the straight-laced good guy, all muscles, iron jaw and heroics, but as his slightly comic sidekick in the battle against a Japanese crime lord, Lee gives the role of Johnny a sense of humour and a real personality, promising great things to come. One of his best lines (‘You have the biggest dick I’ve ever seen on a man’) is not only funny and makes sense in context, Lee says it without an ounce of awkwardness.

Like The Rock years later, Lee would be that rarest of Hollywood beasts – a star who crossed over from sports and demonstrated the very thing plenty of Hollywood actors sadly lack; the ability to act. But his true calling card and the starring role that would establish him as a major screen talent was just around the corner.

Becoming Eric Draven

In 1989, Caliber Comics published The Crow, a revenge fantasy by author James O’Barr. After losing his girlfriend to an accident involving a drunk driver, O’Barr dreamed up the character of Eric Draven to help him deal with her death.

Playing a constant mix of Joy Division and The Cure (who’d contribute to the soundtrack, along with some of the hottest acts of the day like Stone Temple Pilots and Rage Against the Machine), O’Barr imagined a dark superhero who’d died with the love of his life only a day before their wedding, but who’d come back from the grave to exact revenge on the gang of thugs who murdered them. The spirit guide who’d lead him from the world of the dead would be a common crow, and the sad clown make-up depicted in the comic would end up one of the strongest images in pop culture.

Producer Edward R Pressman’s company bought the rights to O’Barr’s series and hired Alex Proyas, a 30-year-old music video director from Australia, to bring it to life. O’Barr initially hated the casting – he thought Lee’s presence would turn the film into a kung-fu film and wanted Johnny Deep (Cameron Diaz was offered the role of Eric’s girlfriend Shelly but didn’t like the script).

But after meeting with the young star, O’Barr was convinced about his motives, his belief in the script and his talent. The actor wanted a starring role that relied on his ability as an actor rather than fighting prowess, and when the film came out between July and November 1994 around the world, audiences were convinced too. Lee’s long hair, sinewy figure, black garb and the haunting make-up was unmistakable. His crystal clear voice delivered heartfelt dialogue by screenwriters David J Schow and John Shirley (including ad-libbing – particularly during the scene in the apartment of Ernie Hudson’s crusading cop Albrecht).

Proyas, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Alex McDowell (who’d go on to films like ”Fight Club”, ”Minority Report”, ”Watchmen” and ”Man Of Steel”) brought Draven’s world to life in a style that’s often copied but seldom bettered. The unnamed city gave us a shorthand for the term cyberpunk – a dark, dangerous urban jungle crawling with low lives – a younger, nastier, grimier Gotham City, drenched by a constant rain.

The plot was deceptively simple. After his and Shelly’s deaths at the hands of T-Bird’s (David Patrick Kelly) gang, the crow alights on Draven’s grave during a storm. It watches with its cold, impassive eyes as the music swells and Eric crawls out of the grave, bought back to avenge his and Shelly’s murders by a power that’s never explained.

As Eric tracks down each gang member in the order they beat and raped his beloved fiance, it leads him to crime boss Top Dollar (Michael Wincott). Eric’s exploits have the underworld of the city spooked, especially when he shoots up a gathering of high level gang leaders to reach final victim Skank (Angel David) and proves to be unkillable as he does so.

With talk about calling off the forthcoming Devil’s Night tradition of lighting fires all over the city, Top Dollar realises Draven is a problem that needs to be dealt with, so he takes Eric and Shelly’s young friend – street kid Sarah (Rochelle Davis) – hostage to force Eric to fight him.

The film is a vision of extremes. There are bouts of brutal violence accompanied by heavy rock and metal music and sequences of beauty, stillness and slowness over Graeme Revell’s melancholy score. It’s an action movie with a dark, romantic heart, a love story with blistering violence. No wonder Proyas originally wanted to shoot it in black and white.

It’s also a far cry from most action movies, with their interchangeable heroes stopping some interchangeable bad guy. Driven by love and heartbreak rather than blazing muscles or firepower, Lee is poignant and heartfelt portraying the agony of losing Shelly and (dare we say it) kick-ass rolling across a floor unloading clips at a room full of scumbags. There isn’t a trace of humour or lightness in his performance, every frame heavy with his belief in Eric’s pain.

Dying for immortality

Of course, every time you see Lee on screen, it’s not necessarily him. Several scenes (like Eric first putting on the make-up and the iconic visual of him approaching the window to look out over the crime ridden city with the crow on his shoulder) were done with body doubles, digitally animating Lee’s face into shots. With CGI still a fairly new trick in the early 90s, Proyas and his crew worked wonders keeping the story intact after losing their leading man.

The day was March 30, 1993. The scene was a flashback of Eric remembering the day T-Bird’s gang broke into his apartment. Shelly (Sofia Shinas) has attracted the attention of local hoods by fighting corrupt tenant evictions, threatening a source of extortion income.

At Top Dollar’s request (as we learn later), T-Bird is sent to teach her a lesson. Home alone, Shelly gets up to answer a knock when the gang bursts in to beat, rape and torture her to death. Eric comes home and enters the apartment during her assault, and the script called for gang member Funboy (Michael Massee) to shoot him in the chest before the gang throws him out the apartment window. In the final cut, the knife wielding Tin Tin (Laurence Mason) throws a knife instead as Eric opens the door.

Because the stunt was a simple one and the production would save money, the weapons specialist had already been sent home for the night. The .44 magnum already used by Massee in rehearsals contained dummy bullets (with no primer or gunpowder). But rather than buy pre-formed dummy cartridges, the crew took the projectiles and powder from live rounds, not realising the fatal consequences of leaving the percussion primer in the cartridge.

Discharging the gun for either testing or safety between takes caused the primer to go off, shooting the casing into the barrel where it got stuck. For the shot of Funboy shooting Eric from about four metres away, prop master Daniel Kuttner replaced the dummy rounds with the live blanks that generate the ‘flash’ effect needed on film to make a discharge look like a live round.

But blanks have all the percussive force of a real bullet – they just have no projectile to shoot – so when the gun was discharged, the jammed casing was fired with almost the same force as a live round.

The bag of groceries Lee was carrying contained an explosive squib to simulate the bullet’s impact. Lee himself held the trigger to fire it, but as the cameras rolled, he was hit in the chest by the jammed casing. The star collapsed to the floor and it was several seconds before anyone realised he was actually hurt, the action ongoing around him.

Lee was rushed to a hospital near the Wilmington, North Carolina set, his heart stopping several times along the way. Doctors used 60 pints of blood fighting to revive him over the course of six hours, but he died just after 1pm on March 31, 1993. His final days on the film were scheduled for April 3, just four days later.

“The Crow”‘s last scene depicts the night sky above the city, the crow flying off into the distance as Sarah begins her final voiceover; ‘If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever.’

The picture fades to black, and just before the credits appear a title card reads ‘For Brandon and Eliza’. Lee met his girlfriend Eliza Hutton while she worked as a personal assistant for ”Die Hard 2: Die Harder” and ”Cliffhanger” director Renny Harlin on the Fox lot, and the pair’s wedding date was already set for April 17 in Mexico. Lee died only days before marrying the love of his life – just like Eric Draven.

The aftermath

After enduring the very premature death of her husband Bruce, now Linda Lee Cadwell had to hear the news that her son had died too, aged only 28. She filed a negligence lawsuit against producer Edward R Pressman, actor Michael Massee and 12 other people connected with the film. Contrary to most reports, Proyas didn’t order the footage of Lee’s shooting destroyed out of respect. It was processed and developed for the investigation into the accident, later destroyed as part of the out-of-court settlement awarded to Lee’s mother. The district attorney of Wilmington subsequently said it wouldn’t pursue criminal charges.

Actor Michael Massee, now a TV stalwart after roles in ”24” and ”Flashforward”, was said to have been so devastated at unwittingly causing Lee’s death he retired from acting for a year. His part in the accident makes one of his lines as Funboy (‘Don’t you ever fuckin’ die?’ – said when Draven invades his hotel room home before tormenting and killing him) even eerier.

But if there’s one thing the cultural conversation attached to Lee’s death faster than James Dean’s famous axiom (‘live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse’), it’s the urban myth about a Lee family curse. 20 years before (give or take a few months), stories surfaced that some shadowy martial arts authority or the Chinese Mafia had ordered Bruce Lee assassinated for revealing the secrets of their ancient rites in his movies.

With news of Brandon’s death, all the old stories came out of the woodwork. The same cabal of killers had murdered Brandon in some kind of ancient tradition of punishing an enemy by killing his first-born son. A Triad group killed him because he refused to work in films produced by their front companies in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

But as far-fetched as some of the rubbish attached to Lee’s death was, you can’t ignore some weird coincidences. His father’s last film Game of Death (released five years after he died in 1978), which depicted a movie-within-the-movie, showed his character being hit with a real bullet instead of blanks for the film his character is filming.

Then there was the troubled production of ”The Crow” itself, Lee’s shooting only the last and most visible in a long line of incidents. A carpenter was badly burnt when a crane he was riding in touched power lines. A truck caught on fire. A car ran into the plasterer’s workshop. A builder accidentally drove a screwdriver through his hand.

But eerier (and sadder) of all are the parallels between Lee and the very character he was playing. One of the reasons he pursued the role was because of the strength of the idea that love transcended death – something he was very conscious of in his blossoming relationship with Eliza.

In his last ever interview, Lee talks about what a wonderful role Eric was to play to remind us to appreciate every minute. He quoted a passage from a book he’d chosen for he and Eliza’s wedding invitations, words he probably never dreamed would be etched onto his grave in Seattle just a month later, where he’s buried beside his father;

‘Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…’

The Crow lives

If ”The Crow” went on to be a success (and with a global box office take of $94m worldwide from a $15m budget, it certainly was), Lee was signed to two sequels. We can only guess what they would have been like, and while the circumstances were tragic, he left us on a high note. The next installments didn’t have the same magic – subsequent stars Vincent Perez (1996’s ”The Crow: City of Angels”) and Eric Mabius (”The Crow: Salvation”) looked fine, but neither had Lee in the title role or the romance and action of O’Barr’s original premise.

None of which has stopped Hollywood launching the inevitable cash grab for a new generation. Relativity Media is spending a reported $70m on the reboot, with Luke Evans starring. You might know him as the villain from ”Fast & Furious 6” (2013), and in another strange twist of fate, he played a role in John Cusack’s Edgar Allen Poe thriller ”The Raven” (2012).

Evans is signed to play Eric Draven with unknown F Javier Gutiérrez directing, although there hasn’t been much movement with the production in awhile. The last news was from late 2013, when Evans told the media he wasn’t scared of an apparent ‘curse’ over the role.

A roll call of A listers like Bradley Cooper, Mark Wahlberg, Channing Tatum, Robert Pattinson, James McAvoy, Tom Hiddleston and Alexander Skarsgard are all said to have been considered for the title role, and if nothing else, Generation Xers who loved the original will show up to see just how wrong Hollywood gets it.

Still, strange things happen. On paper, a $15m story of action and romance in a gothic, bleak setting starring a martial arts actor shouldn’t have worked either. But no matter how artistically respectful Gutiérrez is or how good Evans looks and sounds in the make-up, many of us like to think it’ll always be a mere re-run, a pastiche.

The original – both of ”The Crow” and of Brandon Bruce Lee himself – has been and gone.

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About Drew Turney

An Australian-based film critic and celebrity interviewer now based in Los Angeles, California.

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