(2005) *** 1/2 R
113 min. Lions Gate Films. Director: Paul Haggis. Cast: Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner.

With Crash, co-writers Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco craft a scene that's unlikely to be matched for pure gut-level impact. Craftily set up (and earned) by another crackerjack confrontation earlier in the picture, the scene in question uses the ticking-clock language of action-movie tension to force a truce between two characters who have declared war on each other based on differences of race, gender, and morality. In a movie crammed with speechy dialogue, two characters deepen and redefine themselves through action, cause for genuine surprise.

Haggis—the first-time director of Crash (and screenwriter of Million Dollar Baby) might have been content with this virtuosic scene, an imaginative approach to refusing easy judgement of quickly established screen characters, but Crash is an ever-ambitious, nearly two-hour boil of racial tensions in modern-day Los Angeles. Consistently riding the borderline of heavy-handed with this P.T. Anderson-styled tapestry of interwoven tales (the opening lines are a big mistake), Haggis jounces his own tightrope with character collisions and roadside combat, but proves—almost in spite of himself—that nothing succeeds like success.

An uniformly excellent cast broods over actual and perceived injustices. Ryan Philippe's cop must share a car with a pain-in-the-ass racist partner (Matt Dillon), who racially profiles an upper-class black couple (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton). Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Larenz Tate banter about racial profiling before getting into some trouble of their own. Sandra Bullock spews invective about Mexican-Americans until she finds she needs her maid. Don Cheadle, a detective sleeping with his Central American partner (Jennifer Esposito) bears familial burdens, and so it goes...

"Don't drive angry" could be the tag line for Crash. Haggis sets a fast pace and sticks to it, caroming from couple to couple and freshening what's essentially one astringent, racially charged dialogue that seems to carry the entire burden of America's—and Hollywood's—racist past. In one scene, an asshole TV star (dig the cameo) instructs Howard's TV director to enforce the Ebonics a presumably white screenwriter has penned for an African American actor. The establishment of white intellectual superiority through cultural dominance queasily compounds when Howard's harrassed character feels he must swallow his pride—for the second time in 24 hours—to protect his livelihood.

Haggis gives his audience no time to flinch, and while it's a dazzling feat of screenwriting, less would be more: the lessons are too obvious, too crowded, too loud. Still, Haggis evinces remarkable skill on a scene-by-scene basis. A maddening miscommunication between a good-hearted Mexican-American locksmith and a Persian store owner (Shaun Toub) has no "bad guy"—though the shop owner is hysterical, he's still riding a wave of anger articulated by the rhetorical question "When did Persian become Arab?". Sadly, we all know the answer. Haggis plays the audience like an electric guitar, but with actors like these, who needs subtleties?

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