[Screen It]

(2005) (Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon) (R)

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Drama: Disparate residents of Los Angeles deal with each other and the various effects that racism has on them and their relationships with others.
Graham Waters (DON CHEADLE) is a detective in Los Angeles, a sprawling city filled with people of different races and ethnicities, as well as unresolved racist beliefs, attitudes and actions. He and his partner and lover, Ria (JENNIFER ESPOSITO), have just been involved in a car accident where such attitudes surface. Yet, he's more interested in a recently discovered body along the side of the road, unaware of the events from the preceding day that led him to his place.

It starts when thugs Anthony (CHRIS "LUDACRIS" BRIDGES) and Peter (LARENZ TATE) carjack the district attorney, Rick (BRENDAN FRASER), and his wife, Jean (SANDRA BULLOCK), who's upset that societal pressures prevented her from acting on her gut instinct to avoid the two men. Officer Ryan (MATT DILLON) of the LAPD has no such hesitations, however. Upset with what he thinks equal rights have done to the country and his father - not to mention thinking his pop's getting the cold insurance shoulder from black HMO worker Shaniqua (LORETTA DEVINE) -- he takes out his anger on black TV director Cameron Thayer (TERRENCE HOWARD) and his wife Christine (THANDIE NEWTON) during a traffic stop.

His young partner, Officer Thomas Hansen (RYAN PHILLIPPE), is uncomfortable with Ryan's racist actions, but their black boss, Lt. Dixon (KEITH DAVID), won't do anything about it. Also harboring and encountering racist feelings is Farhad (SHAUN TOUB), an Iraqi shop owner whose daughter, Dori (BAHAR SOOMEKH), is upset with him for having recently purchased a handgun. When his shop is broken into and ransacked, he thinks locksmith Daniel Ruiz (MICHAEL PEŅA), father to 5-year-old Lara (ASHLYN SANCHEZ), is responsible since Farhad didn't take his advice to fix a broken door.

As their various stories intersect throughout the day and night, various forms of racism repeatedly rear their ugly heads, eventually leading to an act of violence that leaves one person dead.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Back when I was in college, I knew a guy of no particular fame who, no matter where he went in small towns or big cities, always managed to run into someone he knew. It happened enough times in my presence that I nearly swore that all of it had to have been set up, but, as they say, that would be crazy talk. In the end, I just chalked up it to the very nature and definition of a coincidence.

Thus, I suppose I should be more forgiving when it occurs in the movies. Then again, it is always set up and contrived when it happens on the big or little screen, and that's particularly true in "Crash." Something of a combination of "Grand Canyon, "Magnolia" and "Falling Down," the film is a multi-layered look at racism and intolerance in the city of Los Angeles. With a big cast playing a rainbow coalition of characters, the film examines how all races suffer from yet also participate in one form of racism or another.

And to drive home that examination, first-time director Paul Haggis (who penned "Million Dollar Baby") has those various characters repeatedly running into each other on the streets of Los Angeles. It's not a horrible structural fault -- it's actually necessary for the plot penned by Haggis and Bobby Moresco ("One Eyed King") to work in its full-circle manner -- and the first or second time it occurs, one can somewhat forgive the coincidence factor. Yet, the more it happens, the more artificial the film starts to feel. And that's too bad since there's some interesting thought behind and within this effort, not to mention some terrific performances from a diverse cast.

The initial concept is stated by the LAPD detective played by the always wonderful Don Cheadle ("Hotel Rwanda," "Ocean's Eleven"). Having just been in a car accident on his way to investigate the discovery of a dead body, he waxes philosophical with his partner and lover -- Jennifer Esposito ("Taxi," "Breakin' All the Rules") -- that people are used to bumping into each other in big cities while walking the sidewalks. Yet, in car-dependent Los Angeles, everyone drives and thus, he postulates, crash into each other just to feel some sort of contact.

The screeching of tires, crumpling of metal and then interaction among the participants, however, is just symbolic of the day to day racial crashing that occurs among the various characters. Black men refer to Asians as "chinamen" and joke about Mexicans parking on the lawn, while a Hispanic woman mocks an Asian woman's accent. Everyone thinks a Hispanic locksmith is a gang banger, including an Iraqi who's told to start the jihad on his own time by an angry white gun store owner.

As the story unfolds, we follow the various disparate characters as they experience racism, but also contribute to the problem with their own beliefs and actions, some of which come back around to bite them in the you know what. It's not particularly novel -- other films have dealt with such matters before -- but Haggis and company manage to keep the various characters engaging and their storylines interesting over the course of the 110-some minute runtime.

While some of the dialogue occasionally feels a bit contrived -- some of it's too insightful and smart to be coming out of regular people's mouths -- most of it rings true and add more depth to the thematic issues at play. Beyond that occasional issue and the coincidence factor, however, the biggest problem is that there are simply too many characters and storylines.

As a result, some of them feel shortchanged, as there just isn't enough time to explore what makes them tick, which is something of an important issue since that's what the movie is all about. Even so, the performances, for the most part, are solid to excellent and come courtesy of a mixed cast of big stars, recognizable players and relative unknowns.

Given some of the meatier parts are Matt Dillon ("City of Ghosts," "There's Something About Mary") as a racist cop whose ideology has an intriguing catalyst; Ryan Phillippe ("Gosford Park," "Antitrust") as his young and still idealistic partner; and especially Michael Pena ("Buffalo Soldiers," "Gone in Sixty Seconds") as a locksmith with some incredibly tender and moving moments with the young girl playing his daughter.

Ludacris ("Hustle & Flow," "2 Fast 2 Furious") and Larenz Tate ("A Man Apart," "Biker Boyz") are the "Pulp Fiction" type thugs who talk as much as they rob, while Terrence Howard ("Ray," "Hart's War") and Thandie Newton ("The Truth About Charlie," "Beloved") play a married couple reeling from a troubling traffic stop. Brendan Fraser ("The Quiet American," the "Mummy" films) and Sandra Bullock ("Two Weeks Notice," the "Miss Congeniality" movies) have smaller parts (with Bullock doing quite well in a role playing against type), while the likes of Keith David, William Fichtner, Tony Danza and others appear in even smaller roles.

Although the film doesn't offer any easy answers to the problem at hand, it's still an intriguing effort that manages to work despite some of its problems, and that's probably no mere coincidence, even with my college friend nowhere to be found. Thankfully avoiding what its title suggests it might do (along with "burn"), "Crash" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed April 1, 2005 / Posted May 6, 2005

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