A determinedly dire -- but neatly packaged -- ensembler on the state of race relations, "Crash" represents the modern condition as a violent bumper car ride. In his feature directorial debut, prominent TV writer-producer Paul Haggis demonstrates his tube-honed skill at intertwining multiple story strands, but the tense drama eventually becomes off-putting when it becomes clear almost every scene hinges on an unpleasant or ugly racial interaction.

A determinedly dire — but neatly packaged — ensembler on the state of race relations, “Crash” represents the modern condition as a violent bumper car ride. In his feature directorial debut, prominent TV writer-producer Paul Haggis demonstrates his tube-honed skill at intertwining multiple story strands, but the tense drama eventually becomes off-putting when it becomes clear almost every scene hinges on an unpleasant or ugly racial interaction. Having paid $4 million for the indie production at the Toronto fest, Lions Gate should be able to parlay the name cast and a measure of critical support into decent returns on this well-made but not very likable picture.

Working in a format that recalls innumerable television shows as well as bigscreen mosaics such as “Short Cuts,” Haggis, with co-writer Bobby Moresco, clearly set out to take a serious and probing look at the Los Angeles melting pot, its ever-evolving rainbow nature and the simmering prejudices of its inhabitants. Haggis knows how to grab the viewer’s attention, via intense confrontations as well as by planting dramatic seeds that bear fruit in, more often than not, grimly unexpected ways.

Strategy results in a collection of powerful individual scenes. Cumulatively, however, they amount to a narrow, ungenerous and, finally, unrepresentative view of the world, one that suggests people are correct in suspecting others as having only the worst motives. Pic seems to promote an ideology of victimhood, and shoves race-based thinking to the fore of every human exchange. In his earnest attempt to speak plainly about how racial stereotypes and ingrained prejudices play an often insidious part in everyone’s daily lives, Haggis protests too much, and in the process contracts the scope of his film.

Yarn begins unspooling during the Christmas season at the scene of a nasty automobile accident in the Hollywood Hills, and proceeds down to Westwood, where two young black men, Peter (Larenz Tate) and Anthony (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), carjack a Lincoln Navigator that happens to belong to District Attorney Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Jean (Sandra Bullock).

An uptight, ill-tempered woman, Jean carps at her husband and denigrates, so that he can hear it, the locksmith, Daniel (Michael Pena), whom she perceives to be a Hispanic gang type; she insists they’ll just have to get the locks changed on their home all over again. Not only that, but she blurts out insulting racial epithets in the presence of her Hispanic maid.

With a priority call out to look for the stolen SUV, two white cops, Ryan (Matt Dillon) and Hanson (Ryan Phillippe), pull over just such a car, one occupied by an upscale black couple, TV director Cameron (Terrence Howard) and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton). In a very nasty, racially motivated way, Ryan puts his hand all the way up Christine’s dress, abusing her while verbally humiliating Cameron, all to the horror of his partner. Christine later castigates her husband for doing nothing, even though he was powerless under the circumstances.

Threads are further played out, with offshoots springing up. On their way to a chop shop, Peter and Anthony run over a “Chinaman,” whose blood on the car prevents them from unloading it. Detective Graham Walters (Don Cheadle), who’s looking for his missing brother, has to grapple with a fresh crime scene in which a white cop has evidently shot a black undercover cop in self-defense. An Iranian shop owner, Farhad (Shaun Toub), buys a gun for self-protection and, after finding his store trashed, determines to use it against Daniel, who he thinks hasn’t fixed his broken lock properly.

In the most extreme set of coincidences in a movie hardly wanting for them, Hanson, who has requested a new partner to get away from Ryan, ends up stopping Cameron again in his SUV after it’s been ‘jacked by Peter and Anthony, with scary results. Ryan, for his part, is the first cop on the scene of an awful highway accident from which the pinned Christine, the woman he’s manhandled the night before, urgently needs to be rescued. Irony of ironies.

Some of these stories of the naked city pan out tragically, some are manipulated to seem horrifying then not so bad, and others have a hopeful little spin put on them. There are few positive or strong relationships depicted, save for a conventionally loving father-daughter bond that is shamefully milked for maximum anxiety, and everyone harbors dark suspicions of others, often for good reason. A reasonably realistic and varied array of actions and responses is rejected in favor of an anxiety-provoking slate of negative motives that fulfill the drama’s sociological program, creating a blindered view of humanity in a film that could have been employed to examine a more diverse cross-section of attitudes.

Pic may become tiresome due to its insistent hitting of the same notes, but it never bores. Specific scenes, especially those involving Dillon as the racially resentful cop who, like everyone else, has his reasons, bristle with tension as the character continuously pushes past conventional limits in abusing his authority and, redeemingly, in his display of uncommon valor.

Predominant impression given off by thesps is of characters whose nerves are frayed and patience worn thin; they are agitated and exasperated, just one insult or incident from the edge. Actors come across as grim and somewhat suggestive that they’re up to something more important than the Hollywood norm.

Largely undifferentiated Los Angeles locations have been given the gritty treatment by lenser J. Michael Muro, and Mark Isham’s techno/vocal score mixes moodiness and a veneer of pretension in equal measure.

Crash

Production

A Lions Gate Films release of a Bob Yari Prods. and DEJ Prods. presentation of a BlackFriar's Bridge and Harris Co./ApolloProscreen/Bull's Eye Entertainment production. (International sales: Apollo/BYP/Bull's Eye Entertainment, Los Angeles.) Produced by Cathy Schulman, Don Cheadle, Bob Yari, Mark R. Harris, Bobby Moresco, Paul Haggis. Executive producers, Andrew Reimer, Tom Nunan, Jan Korbelin, Marina Grasic. Co-producers, Betsy Danbury, Sarah Halley Finn, Randi Hiller. Directed by Paul Haggis. Screenplay, Haggis, Bobby Moresco; story, Haggis.

Crew

Camera (CFI color, Panavision widescreen), J. Michael Muro; editor, Hughes Winborne; music, Mark Isham; production designer, Laurence Bennett; art director, Brandee Dell'Aringa; set decorator, Linda Sutton-Doll; costume designer, Linda Bass; sound (Dolby Digital), Richard Van Dyke; supervising sound editor, Sandy Gendler; associate producer, Dana Maksimovich; assistant director, Scott Cameron; second unit camera, Dana Gonzales; stunt coordinator, Gary Wayton; casting, Sarah Halley Finn, Randi Hiller. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 10, 2004. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Jean Cabot - Sandra Bullock Graham Walters - Don Cheadle Officer Ryan - Matt Dillon Ria - Jennifer Esposito Flanagan - William Fichtner Rick Cabot - Brendan Fraser Cameron Thayer - Terrence Howard Anthony - Chris "Ludacris" Bridges Christine Thayer - Thandie Newton Officer Tom Hanson - Ryan Phillippe Peter - Larenz Tate Karen - Nona Gaye Daniel - Michael Pena Shaniqua - Loretta Devine Farhad - Shaun Toub Graham's Mother - Beverly Todd Lt. Dixon - Keith David

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