By EW Staff
Updated September 09, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Whenever a young star dies in his or her prime, the stage is set for all manner of morbid speculation, which in turn becomes the lowest form of hype. In the case of Brandon Lee, the circumstances of his death — killed by a bullet from a stunt gun while filming a death scene in The Crow (1994, Miramax, R, priced for rental) — plus the untimely (and mysterious) death of his famous father, Bruce Lee, gave the vultures in both fandom and the tabloids plenty to feed on. So, in exploring Lee’s legacy of movies on video, it’s important to take a reality check first: His death was not a portent or the continuation of some curse; it was a human tragedy, and an awful, stupid accident.

The loss that Lee’s death represents to movie fans would not seem so substantial had The Crow not been completed after his passing. Of the five movies he made for American release (Legacy of Rage, a 1986 Chinese-language actioner he filmed in Hong Kong is unavailable on video), only this very stylish, very hip horror movie taps into Lee’s unique charisma, native intelligence, and real talent.

It’s entirely fitting, I suppose, that Lee made his debut in Kung Fu: The Movie (1986, Warner, unrated, $19.98), since his dad had conceived the popular ’70s TV series. Within the confines of standard made-for-TV adventure fare, Brandon, playing a bald Manchu assassin, gets to show off his handsome features and proficient martial-arts moves, but not much else.

His next film, Laser Mission (1989, Turner, unrated, $9.98), besides being an exercise in questionable karma (it was coproduced by South Africans while the U.N.’s boycott of that country was still in effect), casts Ernest Borgnine as a brilliant scientist. The rest of the movie’s components are just as credible. As the very young secret agent sent to rescue the kidnapped expert, Lee is moderately dashing, but it’s clear that this isn’t the role he was born to play.

The crassly enjoyable buddy-cop pic Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991, Warner, R, $19.98) teams Lee up with big (but well-spoken) lug Dolph Lundgren. The irony here is that Lee plays a half-Japanese L.A. police officer with no clue about his Asian heritage, while Lundgren’s raised-in-Japan Aryan has a severe Samurai fixation. Lee portrays the callow, yuppified Johnny with grace and good humor, not even wincing when called upon to compliment Lundgren’s Chris Kenner on his penis size. Directed by Mark L. Lester (Class of 1984, Commando) with his customary vulgar brio, the film wallows shamelessly in such distasteful nonsense when not laying on the better-than-average action pyrotechnics.

Lee’s first big-studio starring vehicle, Rapid Fire (1992, FoxVideo, R, $19.98), is a tame shoot-’em-up that’s competent and not much else. Lee plays Jake Lo, a student who witnesses the shooting of a Thai drug dealer by a cranky Mob boss (Nick Mancuso). After a series of double crosses, he teams up with a maverick police lieutenant (Powers Boothe) to bring down a drug cartel. / Lee seems underused here: When not fighting, he’s called on to smolder in his black muscle T. The movie is most enlivened by Mancuso’s bullying Gotti-esque performance as the out-of-control mafioso. Once his character gets killed off, however, all that’s left is conventionally staged mayhem.

If neither Showdown in Little Tokyo nor Rapid Fire helped catapult Lee to the level of a Van Damme or Schwarzenegger, it’s because his appeal was always essentially different from theirs. With his smooth Eurasian features and slim body, he carried himself with a lightness that verged on delicacy. He had an androgynous quality—if there is such a thing as an action hero for aesthetes, he was it.

The Crow, based on a comic-book series by James O’Barr, takes full advantage of Lee’s distinctly antimacho allure. He plays rock musician Eric Draven, who returns from the dead to avenge his and his fiancee’s murders. Donning mime makeup before going on his mission, Draven fashions a striking look—Les Enfants du Paradis Go to Hell. Lee’s physical acting is terrific: He moves with pantherlike grace as he stalks the unnamed city’s rooftops, aided by the titular bird, who gives him a second pair of eyes. The grimness of Draven’s task doesn’t stop Lee from displaying some wry humor, and his final scenes, in which Draven finally finds peace, would have remained strangely moving even if Lee had survived the making of the film.

The movie itself is one of the most ambitious horror-action flicks in recent years, although its ambitions are of the stylistic rather than the intellectual variety. It helps that director Alex Proyas has seen some movies outside the genre -the scenes of Draven returning to the trashed site of his demise, shaking and shivering all the way, don’t recall anything from the trashy Hellraiser movies so much as they remind one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s detritus-strewn masterwork Stalker. Still, returning from the dead for vengeance is a pretty flimsy premise on which to hang a whole movie, and this one has plenty of padding (the villain and his girlfriend indulge in some fatal menage a trois games that are pretty creepy but don’t exactly serve the story line). Proyas tries hard to make it not feel like padding; helping out are emotionally convincing performances by Ernie Hudson as a skeptical cop who becomes Draven’s ally and Rochelle Davis as the skateboarding preteen who had been a friend of the murdered couple.

The movie relentlessly trucks in postadolescent romantic cliches about death (underscored by a soundtrack of minor-key songs by a bevy of high-grade mope-rockers), which might have seemed less pronounced had Lee been able to walk away from the set. It’s a crushing irony and a shame that his career was cut short just when he found such a fitting role. But it’s not as much of a shame as his death. The Crow: B+ Kung Fu: C Laser Mission: C- Showdown in Little Tokyo: C+ Rapid Fire: C