A Murder of Crows (1998): The First of the Franchise

Matty looks back at the inaugural feature from Franchise Pictures.

After connecting with Lebanese émigré turned Los Angeles nightclub magnate Elie Samaha — the owner of legendary watering hole The Roxbury — in late 1997, Ashok Amritraj and Andrew Stevens began winding down Royal Oaks Entertainment with an eye to making — quote, unquote — ‘classier’ fare than the B-flicks to which they’d become associated. Attracted by the Miramax idea that independent producers could bag stars with the promise of helping them get their pet projects going, Amritraj, Stevens, and Samaha launched Trademark Films, which they quickly renamed Franchise Pictures. Franchise’s MO was simple: they’d pick up a vanity vehicle that was either rejected by or stuck in development hell at another studio, and procure the talent attached for a massively reduced rate under the pretence of giving said talent the chance to realise their art. Films that Franchise made include: Driven (2001) for Sylvester Stallone; The Pledge (2001) for Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn; and the infamous Battlefield Earth (2000) for John Travolta. Financing came from various U.S. and Canadian banks, international pre-sale and distribution deals, and, later, total deception (Samaha was convicted of fraud in 2004 and found personally liable for diddling German investors Intertainment AG out of a cool $77million). That, though, is another story for another day — as are the amazing spread of films cobbled together by Franchise’s DTV subdivision, Phoenician.

Franchise’s maiden voyage, A MURDER OF CROWS (1998), was a pet project for writer/director Rowdy Herrington and producer/star Cuba Gooding Jr. Dating back to 1983, A Murder of Crows was built from the first script that Herrington had ever written. Then titled ‘Best Seller’, the Road House (1989) helmer had dusted it off following his Bruce Willis dud Striking Distance (1993) and retooled it in the wake of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial [1] to give it a more topical edge, ramping up the ‘lawyers are bastards’ crux of his story. Having enjoyed working with Herrington on boxing drama Gladiator (1992), the script landed in the lap of Gooding Jr. and he was impressed enough to pursue A Murder of Crows as the inaugural film of his own production company, Goodbro. Still hot from his Jerry Maguire (1996) Oscar win (for Best Supporting Actor), Franchise were keen to indulge him.

It’s easy to see why Gooding Jr. was so taken with the material. In terms of lead roles, the one at the heart of A Murder of Crows is a peach. A character present in virtually every scene of the movie, Lawson Russell is great showboating reel filler; a principled yet contradictory creature of the courtroom who happily sabotages his lucrative career as a defense attorney in pursuit of the truth, only to balls up his life by telling a whopping fib when his attempts to write a novel prove fruitless. Relocating from New Orleans to Key West (and then back again as Herrington’s narrative rattles along), the arsey but charming Russell comes into possession of a brilliantly written thriller manuscript penned by a mysterious — ahem — ‘old geezer’ (in actuality a member of the supporting cast, slathered in the worst rubber-faced disguise this side of Gregg Henry in Body Double (1984)), who promptly pops his clogs, leaving Russell free to claim the epic as his. Naturally, when published, the manuscript — the eponymous ‘A Murder of Crows’ — is a colossal hit. However, within its pages are extremely grisly details pertaining to the real-life killings of a group of five lawyers — details that, of course, only the real killer would know, thus pegging Russell as the prime suspect. 

Despite being preposterous beyond belief and telegraphing every twist well in advance, A Murder of Crows succeeds as a rollicking bit of pulp. Built from his oft-used Wrong Man (1959) template (cf. Jack’s Back (1988), The Stickup (2002), and elements of Striking Distance), Herrington spins an engaging yarn that’s briskly paced, and played with an admirably straight face that renders the lofty, shoehorned in nods to Goethe’s Faust, and the kitsch, overly actor-y performances from Gooding Jr.’s co-stars even funnier. Hellraiser (1987) babe Ashley Laurence oozes bombastic sex appeal as a horny publishing heiress, and Eric Stoltz is a thigh slap away from panto as the film’s most cinnabar-coloured red herring. Also fun are Tom Berenger’s knowingly gruff detective — a delightful curmudgeon gifted with several nice zingers — and Mark Pellegrino’s small but pivotal spot as a weaselly college professor.

Alas, A Murder of Crows stumbles because of the very circumstances of its creation: its desire to be a prestigious showcase for a filmmaker, star, and a rising company. While emboldened by the natural production values afforded by New Orleans — particularly the sequences captured in the Big Easy’s vibrant French Quarter — the film is stricken with a glum, serious, and slightly stilted sheen that sits at odds with the madcap delirium that bubbles beneath its surface as a increasingly frantic Russell tries to clear his name and unmask the real culprit. It would have benefitted from more pomp and more decadence. Instead, as consummately lensed as it is, A Murder of Crows is the aesthetic equivalent of bumping into a wild, boozy, party-loving pal when they’re at their day job, when they have to pretend to be a respectable human. 

Upon completion, Franchise — specifically Stevens — declined to release A Murder of Crows theatrically. Rather, they sold it to HBO and it screened in the U.S. as what its drab cinematography caused it to look like: as a TV movie, on 6th July 1999. A Murder of Crows arrived earlier here in the U.K. It premiered as a PPV exclusive on Sky in December 1998 before slipping into steady rotation on Channel 5 c. 2000 time. Gooding Jr. voiced his disappointment with the film’s fate a few years later, in an interview with The Globe and Mail to promote his dismal non-comedy Daddy Day Camp (2007):

“The producers were a little shady. Elie Samaha had some court issue and our movie got lost in the shuffle.” [2]

A valid gripe, certainly. But Franchise’s decision was instrumental in establishing several of the distribution avenues that the company would employ with their richest fruit. Not the multiplex-courting, star-tethered hokum that Samaha was desperately trying to assemble in order to legitimise himself as a mini-mogul, but the film’s produced by — yep — their aforementioned DTV subdivision, Phoenician…

[1] Fitting: Gooding Jr., supposedly relegated to straight-to-video purgatory according to mainstream pundits, earned plaudits for his portrayal of Simpson in the first season of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story in 2016.
[2] ‘Show Me the Talent’ by Johanna Schneller, The Globe and Mail, 11th August 2007

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