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Photograph by Lorey Sebastian

L.A. Clinch: Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton stress out in 'Crash.'


A cycle of L.A. crime begins with a carjacking and ends with a feel-good blur in 'Crash'

By Richard von Busack

THIS IS the kind of movie that comes along about every seven years or so, like cicadas. Crash is screenwriter-turned-director Paul Haggis' portrait of that multicolored, multiculti barrel of crabs that is Los Angeles. The 1999 Magnolia, albeit naive and sprawling, was clearly derived from Robert Altman's 1993 Short Cuts. The granddaddy of this kind of movie is Max Ophuls' La Ronde, which showed how the high- and low-born in Vienna were linked by sex. The modern-day artist prefers crime. The carjacking of a Lincoln Navigator by two robbers (Larenz Tate, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) sets in motion a wheel of circumstance that involves a seemingly random group of Angelenos. The SUV belonged to District Attorney Brendan Fraser and his high-strung, unpleasant wife (Sandra Bullock, squandered). Her locksmith (Michael Pena) is a target of her wrath; the same locksmith has tended to a don't-push-me-I'm-close-to-the-edge Iranian convenience store owner, who has just purchased a gun. Prowling around various crime scenes are racist cop Matt Dillon (this underrated actor is the most convincing character Crash offers), accompanied by rookie Ryan Phillipe. The copper oversteps his bounds one night when pulling over a black TV director and his mouthy wife (Thandie Newton, also no relief).

The circuit begins and ends with the investigation of a murder by plainclothes cop Don Cheadle. His own issues with racism are poisoning his relationship with his partner (Jennifer Esposito, as always, looking like the illegitimate daughter of Kirk Douglas). This L.A. group-portrait movie may be heavier than its predecessors, but then again, the city gets worse with every seven years that go by. Yet this isn't the most street-smart film ever made. Rich people in L.A. usually have the brains not to bandy words with the armed and dangerous LAPD.

Cheadle's crack about why Hispanics park their cars on a lawn gets a laugh, but it might have been better to enlighten the audience. For example, the 40-oz. bottle mystery was solved in Richard Price's novel Libertyland: yes, a six-pack is cheaper, but having your own individual big malt liquor means you don't get into sidewalk disputes about having to share your beer. For what it's worth, my own Salvadoran neighbors started parking on their lawn after they got their cars stolen a few times.

Crash's chain of people isn't nearly sturdy enough. Even Magnolia needed a throat-clearing prelude about coincidence to explain why there was a destiny shaping our ends disguised as a string of coincidences. And as in Crash's predecessors, one unusual phenomenon ties the city together. It's snow this time, just as it was a rain of frogs in Magnolia and a climactic (and more logical) earthquake in Short Cuts. Any box of performances like these can't help having its moments. Crash works some unusual, unsaid irony, such as demonstrating that an Angeleno woman might love antique Mexican tiles and dislike Mexicans. But Haggis' conclusions, such as "The cops give you shit, but they also risk their lives," reduce the problem of L.A.'s police-state qualities to feel-good blur. The message of brotherhood here is so unsubtle the cast might as well be asking the audience to sign a petition.

Crash (R; 107 minutes), directed by Paul Haggis, written by Haggis and Robert Moresco, photographed by James Muro and starring Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon and Jennifer Esposito, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the May 4-10, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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