'Crash' is hard-hitting drama

JIM SLOTEK - Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:46 AM ET

PLOT: A series of racially charged events connects the lives of a disparate lot of Los Angelenos, including a district attorney, an Iranian storeowner, a locksmith, some cops and a couple of petty car thieves.

If Robert Altman's oeuvre were meticulously planned, it might have turned out like Crash, the directorial debut of the Canadian screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby).

As with Altman, Haggis's film effectively has a crowd of protagonists -- at least a dozen in this case -- whose lives intertwine in byzantine ways connected by a theme (racism). As with Altman, these characters are played by top-notch actors working for scale.

But there is no Altmanish sense that Crash is being improvised in any way, propelled by the steam of its own dramatics. Crash is almost machine-like in the way it parses out its screen time among its characters, its coincidence-laden plot dragging them along to events and situations with the certainty of Fate.

This might give the movie an almost TV-like tone of fakery if it weren't for the uniformly solid acting skills on display (Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton, Matt Dillon, etc., all of them acting as if they'd be in this movie for free if it came to that). Even, if you can believe it, Tony Danza shows terrific stuff as a cheerfully racist thug of a producer who insists on ordering black actors to "act blacker."

Haggis isn't the first newbie to notice that Los Angeles is a city of 15 million little islands (Crash draws a fair bit from Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon in this regard). The title is a motif for the jarring way Angelenos encounter each other when they finally must.

On the way home from an awards show, a TV producer named Cameron (Terrence Howard) and his slightly tipsy wife (Thandie Newton) are stopped by police officers Ryan and Hansen (Dillon and Ryan Phillippe) in what is clearly a case of DWB ("driving while black"). They're forced out of the car, and she's searched in a sexually assaultive manner, forcing Cameron to suck up the indignity.

Meanwhile, two urban youths, Peter and Anthony (Larenz Tate and the rapper Ludacris), carp to each other about racism and interrupt their spiel long enough to jack an SUV belonging to a district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his wife (Bullock). When the shaken white couple get home and change their locks, an angry Bullock panics at the sight of Daniel (Michael Pena), a tattooed locksmith she thinks must be a gang member. Michael in turn takes his anger over this indignity and visits it on his next client, a similarly angry Iranian immigrant named Farhad (Shaun Toub).

And on and on, in an avalanche of hurt, anger and bad karma. Black professionals are shown swallowing racist bile and burping up rage. The saints end up tarnished and the sinners are ever so slightly redeemed (Dillon, who begins as the ugliest character in the movie, has an unravelling personal life with an ill father that colours his poisonous attitude to blacks, but has a minor epiphany amid the flames of a car crash).

All in all, it's a pretty good rookie effort by Haggis, whose tautness of script and execution may be a holdover from his years in network TV. Given time, he'll undoubtedly loosen the reins a little and come up with a gem that's a little more freewheeling.

(This film is rated 14-A)


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