City of angles

 

Reviewed - Crash: This intricate film of interlocking stories tackles race issues in Los Angeles head on, writes Michael Dwyer.

Racial prejudices and tensions are the all-consuming concerns of just about everybody in Los Angeles, to judge by Crash, which is set in that city in the run-up to Christmas. Written and directed by Paul Haggis, the Canadian screenwriter of Million Dollar Baby, it shares little beyond its title with JG Ballard's novel and David Cronenberg's subsequent movie, and is much closer in form to the crisscrossing multi-character urban drama of Short Cuts, Grand Canyon, Magnolia, Traffic and 21 Grams.

Haggis traces the roots of Crash back to when he was carjacked at gunpoint in LA. A similar incident is the dramatic trigger in Crash, setting off a spiralling series of events that intersects the lives of disparate characters over the course of 36 hours. Two young black men (Larenz Tate and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) steal an SUV, which happens to be the property of an ambitious district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his bored, pampered wife (Sandra Bullock).

A racist police officer (Matt Dillon) and his liberal young partner (Ryan Phillippe) spot a car matching the description, and even though the occupants are a man and a woman, a wealthy TV director and his wife (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton), the bad-tempered older cop subjects them to humiliating treatment because they are black and because he has had a bad day dealing with bureaucracy regarding his ailing father. The officer's young colleague is as appalled as we are.

The movie spreads its net to encompass a black detective (Don Cheadle) and his Hispanic partner (Jennifer Esposito); an Iranian immigrant (Shaun Toub) with communication difficulties; and a locksmith (Michael Pena) unfairly suspected of underhand behaviour.

Cars are crashed over the course of the movie, but the title more directly refers to the collision of cultures - ethnic, class and generational - in a sprawling urban jungle where extremes of prosperity and poverty abound, colour and dress are regarded too readily as social signifiers, and the propensity for rage appears to be permanently turned to simmer level.

For all its December sunshine, the film presents Los Angeles in a distinctly unflattering light, wound up with prejudice and deep insecurities on all sides of the social divide in the season of goodwill to all men and women.

There hasn't been such a provocative picture on the theme of failed melting pots since Spike Lee's New York-set Do the Right Thing.

Racist epithets pepper the cleverly tangled screenplay of Crash, its overlapping incidents linking and interweaving its many characters into a tapestry charged with tension, laced with humour, and not without humanity or the prospect of redemption.

Issues are raised and confronted head-on and prejudices are revealed simultaneously as the movie deftly assembles its intricately plotted narrative jigsaw.

The large ensemble cast is imaginatively chosen and fed sharp, bracing dialogue. Cheadle is as strong as we now expect him to be, but even Bullock, the most lightweight of the actors, clearly benefits from being cast against type. Phillippe, Pena, Newton and Howard are notably impressive, but the outstanding performance comes from Dillon as the edgy, emotionally conflicted racist cop.

Arresting and absorbing, Crash takes several risks by placing so many people in the wrong place at the wrong time, but carries this off with conviction and structural dexterity. And although it's loaded with one major big coincidence, even that proves entirely forgivable as it sets up the most gripping sequence in this challenging and riveting film.