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Friday, May 6, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Movie Review

Densely woven "Crash" explores race, power in L.A.

Seattle Times movie critic

"Crash," Paul Haggis' flawed but riveting tale of racism in contemporary Los Angeles, has moments so powerful they're instantly seared into your memory; you'll watch without blinking, barely breathing.

In one, Christine (Thandie Newton), a wealthy, beautiful African-American woman, is trapped in an overturned car after an accident. A cop, Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon), struggles to remove her before the car bursts into flame; he's gentle and fearless. She looks at him with terrified eyes: He's the same cop who, the night before, taunted her husband and molested her.

Now he's frantically working to save her life, as gasoline drips onto the pavement and time ticks excruciatingly on. A character we thought we'd figured out is suddenly different; not redeemed, but infinitely more complicated.

Likewise, other characters in this crowded story challenge our initial perceptions. Early on, we meet a pair of young black men (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Larenz Tate) walking nervously in a posh suburban business district, full of, as they say, "overcaffeinated white people."

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Crash," with Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate. Directed by Paul Haggis, from a screenplay by Haggis and Bobby Moresco. 107 minutes. Rated R for language, sexual content and some violence. Several theaters.

These guys are snappy and funny, and we immediately like them — and learn, moments later, that they're carjackers. A Persian store owner (Shaun Toub) earns our sympathy when he is the victim of a robbery, then turns around with potentially violent revenge. Even Graham (Don Cheadle), the weary detective who serves as our moral touchstone, lazily refers to his partner (Jennifer Esposito) as Mexican when she isn't, and seems surprised when she's angry.

The various stories — at least a half-dozen plot lines, loosely entwined with a generous helping of coincidence — unfold over two days in Los Angeles; it's around Christmastime, and the ever-present colored lights and decoration lend a jarring fairy-tale quality to this harsh drama. It's an ambitious, brave film, and Haggis deserves enormous credit for even attempting to address this tricky subject matter.

But the talented writer of "Million Dollar Baby" may have benefited from a different director's eye, to help hone the material further. (The screenplay is credited to Haggis and Bobby Moresco, from a story by Haggis.)

For a feature directing debut, "Crash" shows astonishing fearlessness and potential. But Haggis' directing skills aren't quite at the level of his writing; "Crash" is paced unevenly and attempts too much for its relatively brief running time. This sort of Altman-esque story needs more space to unfold; it's a challenge for even a directing master to keep this many hoops in the air.

And some of the characters get short shrift, with their stories seeming poorly thought out. Sandra Bullock, a talented actress too often trapped in the wrong movie, suffers most here; she has little screen time as the angry wife of a district attorney (Brendan Fraser). She comes to learn, too quickly, that her rich friends are selfish and that her Hispanic maid is a better person than they.

Unafraid to tweak her screen-sweetheart persona, Bullock pours herself into the role, but it's to no avail; the character is too thinly written to seem real. (It's a pleasure, though, to see Bullock stretching in this kind of role; she's long given hint of far more talent than her usually perky roles indicate.)

For a story about race, "Crash" too often dwells in the other kind of black and white: that of who's good and who's bad. Some of the characters are as complex and vivid as any I've seen on screen; others are clearly intended as symbols, as in Bullock's rich white woman; some are simply glimpsed, tantalizingly.

It's a richly populated movie, full of people with their own complicated stories, and sometimes it feels right that we only get a peek. Too often, though, we feel hurried along.

But the performances are splendid, particularly the unforgettable, heartbreaking work by Cheadle, Newton and Dillon. And Haggis, as in "Million Dollar Baby," knows how to bore down into his character's souls and to reveal them to us.

"You think you know who you are," says Ryan, at war with himself and the world. "You have no idea."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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