- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

Comedian Chris Rock once observed that America must be getting somewhere, seeing as the best rapper is white (Eminem) and the best golfer is black (Tiger Woods). Lest we congratulate ourselves too much, there’s “Crash,” the impressive first feature from veteran TV writer and “Million Dollar Baby” scenarist Paul Haggis.

“Crash” says the sunlit uplands of a post-racial society are still but a speck on the horizon; with each influx of immigrants comes new tensions, new confusions and new disturbances that resonate up the food chain, from the barrio to Brentwood.

Neighborhood vandals confuse Persians with Arabs. A young black man (played promisingly by rapper Ludacris) thinks China and Asia are one and the same and mouths paranoid inanities about the racism inherent in white fear — and then proceeds to carjack a Lincoln Navigator.

The spoiled wife (Sandra Bullock, not perky) of a district attorney (Brendan Fraser, searching for gravity) employs a Hispanic nanny and worries hysterically that a Hispanic locksmith will come back and rob her mansion with his gangbanging amigos. A well-to-do black TV director (Terrance Howard) must watch powerlessly as a churlish L.A. cop molests his wife (Thandie Newton) during a traffic stop.

The movie, a meticulously choreographed urban fable performed by a strong ensemble cast, takes place in and around Los Angeles, whose car-dependent ways gave Mr. Haggis a metaphor: We so crave real human contact that we’ll literally crash into each other to get it — which, in Mr. Haggis’ Hobbesian L.A., is an easy thing to do. The paradox is that we avoid human contact out of ignorance and fear, which are fueled by racial insularity.

“Crash” begins and ends with automobile wrecks, allegorically implying a perpetual cycle of dangerous collisions between people who are angry at one another before they actually meet. The introductory wreck is attended to by detectives played by Don Cheadle and Jennifer Esposito.

It’s an unusually cold L.A. night. Mr. Cheadle, one of the movie’s producers and financial champions, spots a disembodied sneaker in the brush. Mr. Haggis suggestively pulls away from the scene but returns later to explain its significance.

Mr. Haggis and co-writer Robert Moresco structure the movie like a chess match; they move pieces back and forth through a 48-hour chronology, by now a familiar contrivance. Here, though, it’s central to the movie’s morality. “Crash” suggests that there’s a hero latent inside the villain, and vice versa.

“Crash” is a chain of surprises, forcing the audience to look at the portrait of a blackened heart from every angle and shocking it with acts of depravity from those who previously were the movie’s innocents.

Matt Dillon (who keeps getting better with age) is a bigoted police officer who, off-duty, navigates through an HMO mess on behalf of his ailing live-in father. He breaks in a rookie partner (Ryan Phillippe) whose idealism has yet to be tested by L.A.’s mean streets.

The standout performance of the movie comes from actor Michael Pena (TV’s “The Shield”). Mr. Pena’s character — he’s the locksmith in Miss Bullock’s unhappy Brentwood house — encounters petty prejudices from customers as though they’re part of the job’s routine blow-back.

In a scene that just may play on the highlight reel of next year’s best-supporting-actor Oscar nominations, Mr. Pena consoles his young daughter, whose dreams are still haunted by the gunshots of an old neighborhood. The family has since moved to safer environs, which “Crash” will invade with an escalation of misunderstandings.

If you’ve heard that “Crash” is the first great movie of 2005, believe the hype.

***1/2

TITLE: “Crash”

RATING: R (Profanity; sexual content; some violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Paul Haggis. Written by Mr. Haggis and Robert Moresco. Produced by Don Cheadle, Mr. Haggis, Mark R. Harris, Mr. Moresco, Cathy Schulman and Bob Yari. Cinematography by James Muro. Original music by Mark Isham.

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.crashfilm.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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