Four years after the demented sequel “The Crow: City of Angels” almost grounded the franchise, Dimension Films returned to the series with “The Crow: Salvation”. Unlike its predecessors, this installment would not be granted a theatrical release; instead, it was cast out amidst the movie wasteland known as Direct-to-DVD, in other words, where franchises typically go to die.

“The Crow: Salvation” is the story of Alex Corvis (Eric Mabius) who is awaiting his day of execution for the murder of his girlfriend, Lauren (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe). Unlike most death row inmates, Alex is genuinely innocent, yet not a single person believes him. However, shortly after his execution, a mystical crow resurrects Alex so that he may find those truly responsible for his girlfriend’s murder, dispense justice with extreme prejudice, and ultimately prove his innocence.

Years ago when I first watched this movie I held the belief that it had been unfairly cast aside as yet another weak installment in this slowly dying franchise; thus, the reason for being released solely to DVD. I thought that it was just the studio’s lack of faith due to the dismal failure of the previous film that prompted them to forego any sort of theatrical release for this feature. However, upon my most recent viewing, I now see that the decision to send this movie directly to the DVD bin was the right choice.

While “The Crow: Salvation” is a stronger and undeniably better movie than “The Crow: City of Angels”, it does not even come close to holding a candle to the original; nor feature anything from the story, to the performances, to the action that would make it a successful theatrical venture either. Now, there are bright spots amidst all of those elements I just listed, but there are just as many equally dark blots as well.

For starters, the story written by Chip Johannessen (TV’s “24”) takes the series in a slightly new direction. Unlike the previous two films where the hero knows who needs to be punished, Alex actually has no clue. Where Eric Draven (Brandon Lee, “The Crow”) and Ashe (Vincent Perez, “The Crow: City of Angels”) relive memories or glimpses of the crime that claimed their lives through flashbacks; Alex’s flashbacks allow him some moments of cherished memories, but mostly serve to unveil the grisly truth behind Lauren’s death and just who exactly was responsible. This new twist on the familiar flashback plot device was a welcome addition, as it shook up the stale formula for the franchise. Too bad more of this movie’s story didn’t perform as admirably; otherwise we might have had the makings of a worthy successor on our hands.

Where the story mostly goes awry is in the dreadfully mismanaged “man with the scars” storyline that was weaved throughout the film (he’s the man that Alex claims is behind Lauren’s death). Not only was that plot point uninteresting, but every time it was mentioned it would cause a slight chuckle at how ridiculous it sounded (an unintentional result, no doubt); plus, that plot device has been done with much more believability and intrigue in other films, such as “The Fugitive” (i.e. “the one-armed man”). When writing a mystery, I would think ensuring that the various aspects of the story remain interesting would be my prime concern. At the very least make sure it doesn’t come off as a cheap knock-off of other more skillfully written screenplays. Maybe I’m just way off base on this one though.

Another weak spot for the story is the dialogue, a problem which I believe to be two-fold. On the one hand you have the script which features some solid dramatic moments between characters, but just as often (maybe even more so) there are just silly, cliché-ridden bits that are painful to hear and couldn’t have been much easier to speak. While much of this issue can be attributed to the writer of the film, the actors and actresses delivering the lines must bear some burden of the blame. Primarily, because there were several instances where the dialogue was perfectly fine, but the performances fell flat for one reason or another.

Speaking of the performances, why don’t we take a look at the cast and dig into what worked on their front and what didn’t, shall we? Taking over the mantle of the Crow this time around is actor Eric Mabius (“Resident Evil”). I was pleased to see the casting choices improved for this installment as Eric is much more believable as the vengeful type. He portrays Alex’s anguish over the loss of his beloved Lauren genuinely, and at the drop of a hat shifts startlingly (in a good way) into revenge mode when the flashback reveals itself to be more than just a glimpse of their love, but actually another clue to the crime. Where his predecessor, Vincent seemed goofy and at times too weak in his anger, Eric is clearly drawing upon something more primal as his anger engulfs his character (harkening back to Brandon Lee’s initial portrayal years before).

Even though Eric Mabius’ performance was a definite plus for the movie, he did struggle occasionally with coming across as a little too playful and immature during his mission. I do think this was a possible outlet for the writer or director to help Eric convey Alex’s youthful spirit despite the dark circumstances. However, it tended to come off as irreverent and juvenile all things considered. In a movie like this, where the premise is already far-fetched, you don’t want whatever credibility and/or believability you have with the audience to be squandered over immature performances or writing. This is not that hard people, it’s just common sense.

Alongside Eric is actress Kirsten Dunst (“Spider-Man”) portraying Lauren’s sister, Erin, to whom Alex is trying to prove his innocence and earn a newfound trust. Kirsten as we’ve seen in her various other film roles is a talented actress, and there are glimpses of that talent seen here. Yet, surprisingly much of the time she seems prone to overacting one minute and being emotionally flat the next. Plus, her performance is replete with poor line readings that one would expect from an acting newbie, but not from an experienced actress. Maybe she didn’t really care for the role, and only accepted it to gain another paycheck? Who knows? Whatever the reason, she definitely seemed unable to convincingly sell the character to the audience in any respect.

In the smaller supporting roles are some fairly recognizable actors ranging from Fred Ward (“Armored”) to Walton Goggins (TV’s “Justified”) to William Atherton (“Die Hard”). Most of these guys have played similar characters before, all to a much greater degree of investment within the roles as well. Out of the three, Walton Goggins held the most promise as a cop that could be construed as a predecessor to his most recognizable role as Shane Vendrell on FX’s “The Shield”. Even then, his character in this movie wasn’t allowed a chance to really develop beyond one-dimensional due to the script rushing past any moments for character development of any kind. Just another example of how this movie failed to capitalize on its potential.

Landing one of the smallest roles in the movie, although her character plays a central part to the story, is actress Jodi Lyn O’Keefe (“Halloween H20: 20 Years Later”) as Lauren. As was the case with the original film, the driving force behind our hero is the loved one that he lost, and in that tradition the actress playing the part is relegated to little more than an extended cameo. In that time, Jodi does give a very strong performance that had to be taxing considering she was likely only on-set for a week at the most. Not a bad piece of work for such a small amount of time both on the job and in the film.

Lastly, the look of the film comes across as a movie trying to reach beyond its low-budget means. While it’s not always a bad thing for a movie and its director to aspire for bigger and better, the result must still look and feel like a professional production. Oftentimes, over the course of the movie either the sets or the action sequences just felt like they were attempting to be too big and bold given the economic pinch Dimension had employed. Perhaps if a more experienced director than relative newcomer Bharat Nalluri had helmed this movie, the limited budget wouldn’t have proven such a detriment.

Or maybe what really ought to have happened is that Dimension should have forced a rewrite that could make the movie stronger, thus enabling them to feel more comfortable with providing greater support for the series. Now there’s a thought, instead of letting a franchise flounder with average or below sequels, take it by the reins and guide it back to greatness. Oh, such a novel concept.

You know, it’s a shame when by the third installment the creative masterminds are desperately trying to reinvigorate a dying franchise before it’s too late. Even with an obviously clear mandate to keep the series going no matter the odds, releasing a sequel with a hit-and-miss track record across the board isn’t exactly the best solution. Although, “The Crow: Salvation” is leaps and bounds above its lackluster predecessor, it still finds itself a distant second to the original; not to mention, it leaves me wishing I had just watched the first film over again.

“The Crow: Salvation” is rated R for violence, language, and sexuality/nudity.