FILM REVIEW: CRASH
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
"Crash" starts like a tinderbox suddenly aflame, with two deceptively collegiate-looking African-American guys (Larenz Tate and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) ambling through an upper-middle-class L.A. neighborhood and joking about racism, then abruptly carjacking a Lincoln Navigator - which belongs to an ambitious white district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his smug, prejudiced wife (Sandra Bullock).
Soon afterwards, two white cops (Matt Dillon and Ryan Philippe) investigating that crime stop a black TV director and his elegant wife (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton) in their ritzy ride. The more bigoted-seeming cop (Dillon) humiliates the man and manhandles the wife.
These wanton, almost casual injustices, coming from both sides of the law, have an ironic symmetry and, we soon see, a dreadful potential. Almost every act has a deadly consequence, and misdeeds fester and explode into worse ones.
"Crash," a movie I liked, is an explosive, intimate ensemble drama set in an urban pressure cooker of racial and class hatreds. Like Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," it's an all-star fresco, but the stars - none of whom carries the movie - get to play the kind of morally ambivalent, sometimes unlikable parts that big-name actors usually avoid.
In addition to the six mentioned above, the movie also gives us fine work by Don Cheadle as another harried cop forced into corruption, Shaun Toub as a distraught Iranian shopkeeper, Michael Pena as the Latino locksmith wrongly blamed for a break-in at the shopkeeper's store, Keith David as a burly police lieutenant, and dozens more.
It's an intriguingly mixed cast, operating a world away from the racially harmonious zones we often see on TV and in other movies. Writer-director Paul Haggis sees Los Angeles through grit-covered glasses, as an arena of prejudices spiraling out of control.
In a superb cast, the standout may be Dillon as Officer Ryan, the character with the most extreme variance of evil and good, brutality and generosity. A cynic who bullies people of color, he's also a dutiful son caring for a dying father - and we come to see that the bad side of Ryan is carapace grown over the good.
But to single out Dillon, who has the most interestingly written role, may be unfair to the others, all of whom are adept at revealing divided, volatile personalities: Cheadle, who is also one of the film's producers and creates a more sensitive and ambivalent cop; or Howard, who has a powerful breakdown scene; or, in fact, almost any of the others.
Haggis, who conceived the idea for "Crash" after he was himself carjacked, is the first-class TV producer-writer ("EZ Street") who found F.X. Toole's boxing stories and adapted them into "Million Dollar Baby" for Clint Eastwood (who has since tapped him for two other scripts, including his upcoming Iwo Jima drama "Faith of Our Fathers").
You can see why. "Crash" may have filched its title from David Cronenberg's 1996 film of the J.G. Ballard novel, and copied its structure from Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," but this is obviously the work of a highly original talent. Haggis does borrow from other films and filmmakers, but he does it to enhance his vision rather than disguise the fact that he has none.
"Crash" is a writer's movie, cleverly plotted and designed, full of strong scenes and juicy parts. And its flaws also are those of a writer's movie: a little too much neatness, patness and irony, and a bit too obvious a pattern. But the shortcomings aren't that crucial.
One of the pleasures of "Crash," as in Altman movies, lies in observing the way the stories and characters interweave and set each other off. Here, as in "Million Dollar Baby," there sometimes seems to be a weird mix of religious determinism and existential chaos. There's even a scene where one character becomes convinced he's been touched by divine grace - and we then see the human agency of that grace. The ideas of accident, a fatal collision, everything a step or two from the edge, permeate the entire film.
But out of this chaos, "Crash" also suggests that acts of goodness, mercy and compassion matter, and that anyone, at any moment, can make a crucial difference. Haggis doesn't necessarily convince us, partly because his design is somewhat too rigorous, his fiction too patterned. But "Crash" does convincingly argue that in a world where everything can seem to be black and white, nothing really is.
Directed by Paul Haggis; written by Haggis and Bobby Moresco, from a story by Haggis; photographed by J. Michael Muro; edited by Hughes Winborne; production designed by Laurence Bennett; music by Mark Isham; produced by Moresco, Haggis, Cathy Schulman, Don Cheadle, Bob Yari and Mark R. Harris. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday, May 6. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: R (language, sexual content and some violence).
Jean - Sandra Bullock
Graham - Don Cheadle
Officer Ryan - Matt Dillon
Ria - Jennifer Esposito
Rick - Brendan Fraser
Cameron - Terrence Howard
Anthony - Chris "Ludacris" Bridges
Christine - Thandie Newton
Officer Hanson - Ryan Phillippe
Peter - Larenz Tate