When Paul Haggis was 47 years old, in 2000, he walked away from a lucrative career as a television writer—and he began to court the 900 pound behemoth of Feature Films. He bought up the rights to some short stories about boxing—and out of that MILLION DOLLAR BABY emerged golden—and Haggis, with his Oscar nomination, became a “known” entity.
Before BABY, back in 2000, Haggis created a story that needed to be rewritten as an original screenplay—called CRASH. He co-wrote it with his friend, Bobby Moresco. Moresco, like Haggis, is a writer, actor, producer, and sometimes director. He was the primary writer for the TV series, MILLENNIUM in 1996. Later he was the co-producer of MILLION DOLLAR BABY.
Haggis directed CRASH back in 2003. He wrote the story—basing it in part on his actual experiences. He was carjacked coming out of a video store in 1991. At the time he was driving a Porsche. Now, with his environmental consciousness radiating—he drives a Toyota Prius. He said,” The Gods teach us a lesson.” He made CRASH independently—taking out two mortgages to pay for it. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to sold-out crowds and rave reviews. It was picked up by Lion’s Gate for domestic distribution. It wasn’t released until May, 2005.
It was written in ROLLING STONE, April 2005—“CRASH as Haggis’ directorial film debut—is already being touted for this year’s awards race.”
Haggis was originally slated to direct MILLION DOLLAR BABY—but CRASH was still in post-production. After being offered the lead in the film, Clint Eastwood asked to direct it. Oscars followed hotly. Haggis is now working with and collaborating with Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood on the upcoming WWII epic, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. But he does not regard himself as “successful”. He said recently,” Look at Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese, and Clint Eastwood. Those guys have success. They have done a number of successful projects—and a bunch of stinkers too. But they are able to ride out their stinkers—and continue on to do great work. It is much too early to talk about me. It is all talk—until you actually see it—and then you might think—“Oh yeah—look at that bastard. He sold out completely.”
When questioned as to why he moved from lucrative TV writing into films, Haggis said,” I agreed to write the pilot because I thought it would then just go away—but instead it became this huge hit. I remember waking up at 3am in a cold sweat—dripping wet. I had been dreaming, and I had just pictured my tombstone—and on it was written,” PAUL HAGGIS: Creator of WALKER—TEXAS RANGER.” So the impetus for the making of these movies is just me trying to wipe that image from my mind.”
Haggis has won a ton of awards—mostly for his writing. He has won two Emmys—the Columbia Mystery Writer’s Award—6 Geminis—and the WGA [Writer’s Guild of America] gave him their prestigious Valentine Davies Award for,” bringing honor and dignity to writers everywhere.”
In March 2003, RAZOR Magazine named Haggis as one of the “25 MAVERICKS OF ALL TIME”. Others on the list included Sam Shepard, Baz Luhrman, and Bill Clinton. This list saluted those,” Non-Conformists who defy dictates--the iconoclasts that cling to independent thought—the radicals that refuse adherence—that give the rest of us pause. They are what legends are made of.”
CRASH opens up with a crash—that we don’t hear—like a silent scream. Don Cheadle as detective Graham Waters speaks in a voice over—as the camera finds its way from a helicopter shot of a huge section of Los Angeles—all bejeweled and twinkling in the cold December sky—down to two occupants of a car.
Graham: It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In LA, nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.
Then detective Waters pulled himself out of the car in a daze—and wandered off toward the stopped vehicles in front of him—while his partner, Rea, played by the fetching Jennifer Esposito, was arguing with the Asian woman who just rear-ended her. The officers on the scene could barely keep them apart.
Chinese Woman: You blake too fast!
Rea: What? I blake too fast? Well, maybe lady—if you had “blaked” at all when you saw all these tail lights and brake lights on the stopped cars in front of you—you never would have plowed into the ass of my car!”
The investigating officers at the scene recognized Waters. They were out there because someone had found a dead black kid. Waters bummed a cigarette—even though he was trying to quit—squatted down and stared at the crime scene. As his eyes cleared—we see the look of recognition in them. Fade out—it was epilogue as prologue—and it worked well.
Actor Matt Dillon once said,” In LA—the whole town seems to revolve around the industry. That can be a good thing when you need to go there for work—but I don’t want to live there anymore. I have a lot of friends there—longtime friends. But LA is weird. You can spend days without seeing another person. I mean—you see people in your car—but without really making contact with them. So while there—you really exist in that way.”
Yes, Los Angeles sprawls out across five counties—hemming in millions of people—but where are the angels? I never found any there. I did love Brad Silberling’s 1993 film, CITY OF ANGELS—with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan—because I loved the notion that the angels are there—we just don’t actually see them. This was based on the premise set forward in Wim Wender’s 1987 film, WINGS OF DESIRE. LA standing in for Berlin is an interesting choice.
I guess when I lived in Los Angeles in the late 70’s—I saw a different city. I came to live there as an actor—and as a longtime movie buff—more tourist than critic. LA built some of the nation’s first freeways back in the 30’s, and certainly one can not see the sights without being behind the wheel of an automobile. But unlike Matt Dillon, and other celebrities, sequestered in their white palaces in the Hollywood Hills, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, and out at the Malibu colony—with some of them spread out north to the hills of Santa Barbara—I was able to park my ride and just walk around the city and immerse myself in the living and celebrated history of the city. I lived in Hollywood in a tiny bachelor apartment on Marathon Street—only few blocks from Paramount Studio and that famous wrought iron logo gate.
Growing up in Seattle—I thought I was used to ethnic diversity within the population. But Los Angeles was a different animal—every third block was a different ethnic group. The Hispanics were diverse just within themselves. The Mexicans were in the majority, but I was fascinated with the Central American and South American communities and restaurants. I remember being impressed with the Asian—the Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean, and Vietnamese sections. Chinatown was huge, but so was the Japanese-town—called “J”town. Those Asian sections, block upon block, were all so clean and seemed so safe in comparison to East LA, Compton, Hawthorne, and parts of the Valley—where you never stopped at a store—and you even feared stopping at a light. After ten years, as I drove north to return to the Northwest—I remember the running joke at the time—LA stands for Latin America, man!
Paul Haggis may have been inspired, in part, by David Cronenberg’s 1996 film, CRASH—with Holly Hunter, James Spader, Elias Koteas, and Rosanna Arquette. The main characters had all been in violent car crashes—and they were disoriented and emotionally numb. Koteas played Vaughn—who ran a crash car cult. He staged famous car crashes in great detail—like James Dean’s and Jayne Mansfield’s. He believed that there was a strong connection between the terrible violence of a car crash and the intense passion of the sexual act. David Cronenberg wrote,” Our most familiar technology has changed us and made us less human. In addition, our love affair with our cars increases people’s isolation from each other. Hidden in their private shells—they move about—only interacting with one another as necessary—as in car crashes.”
So Haggis entitled his project, CRASH, as well. His film dealt with both the isolationist issues—and a much bigger brigand—racism. Roger Ebert wrote,” CRASH tells us interlocking stories of whites, blacks, Latinos, Koreans, Chinese, cops and criminals—the rich and the poor—the powerful and the powerless—all defined one way or another by their racism. All are victims of it—and all are guilty of it. Sometimes, yes, they rise above it—although it is never that easy. Their negative impulses may be instinctive—their positive impulses may be dangerous—and who knows what the other person is thinking? This is a movie with free will—and anything can happen. But because we care about these characters—the movie is uncanny in its ability to rope us in and get us involved.”
In the past—when the world seemed larger—before the mass media with their battalion of satellites shrunk the globe to postage stamp size—with every action today being just seconds delayed from international broadcast—and all of us being the unknowing victims of divers surveillance—I think we had less pronounced racism. People of different ethnicity—whatever that happened to be—tended to stay within their own dominions and communities—and stick to their own kind. When Dwight David Eisenhower was president—the word nigger was just part of our everyday speech—spat out of the sides of our mouths—around the wet edges of a Lucky Strike dangling from our smug lips—spewing out of the rolled down tinted windows of our Buick convertibles.
In the mid 1960’s, I personally awakened from that socialized self-righteous stupor. I began to enjoy dating women of every ethnic group—of sampling foods from their cultures—of investigating their religions, music, poetry, and art. But unfortunately—for me that utopian state—being a citizen of the world—on a spiritual level—did not fly very high when endeavoring to co-exist within a sprawling snarling imperfect overheated urban environment—like Los Angeles. Remember, Civil Rights did not get up off its knees and become a “movement” until 1964—after those men assassinated John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Bobby and Martin Luther King. Vietnam was the war of my youth. When I returned to college in 1968—I was ready to change things. In the throes of my epiphany, I wrote an emotional ethnic manifesto.
S O N G O F E A S T E R
Black prince of my heart,
All the flags of the world
Fly today at half mast—
Your king is dead.
Some weakling with a high powered rifle
Shot him in the head,
And it seems
That the anger of centuries
Is now constructing fire bombs
Row upon row.
But man of ebony,
We stiffly saluted
The fat ones,
And stood shoulder to shoulder
In stone stadiums,
Clutching our gladus
Combating savage beasts,
Our sword arms a blur—
And our blood
The same color.
We waded through marshes of silt
Connected with a cold steel chain
At our bleeding ankles,
Hearing those hell hounds
Baying at our heels—
Fleeing the rope and certain death.
It was your strong brown hand
That pulled me to freedom,
Swinging me up
Onto that fast freight boxcar—
And it was in your arms
That I was held
Shaking with malaria—
And it was in your home
That I sipped hot gumbo
Until my eyes cleared
And my strength returned.
We snaked through the steaming ferns
On our flat stomachs
In the jungle darkness,
Under that impenetrable canopy
Of the sonofabitchin’ ‘Nam—
Flashed silent nocturnal bayonets,
Carried out our wounded buddies
Bleeding on our shoulders
To the Hueys throbbing
Plucked dog tags from the dead,
And shared women in Da Nang.
Now that we are home
And have the leisure
To nurture prejudice—
Do not turn on me
Like something rabid and vicious,
Frothing at the fangs.
I am not your enemy!
We have been warriors.
Let us now share
And till the black soil of spring.
Let us color Christ black.
There is room on the cross
And a black Messiah
Resonates with actual history.
Take my hand, sir,
And drink from my heart—
Accept my love,
We can still defeat
The fat ones.
Glenn Buttkus 1968
Paul Haggis said,” I wanted to deal with how we perceive strangers—and how we perceive ourselves—and I felt that race was just a small part of all that. I find it unendingly interesting the way we that we are able to prejudge so efficiently—and how we’re able to cut ourselves so much slack.”
Roger Ebert wrote,” Haggis writes with such directness and such a good ear for everyday speech—that all his characters seem real and plausible after just few lines. His cast is uniformly strong—the actors side step clichés and make their characters learn the lessons they have earned by their behavior.
Other cross-cutting LA stories come to mind—Lawrence Kasden’s more optimistic GRAND CANYON (1991)—and Robert Altman’s more humanistic SHORT CUTS (1993)—[And Paul Thomas Anderson’s MAGNOLIA (1999)]. But CRASH finds its own way. It shows the way we leap to conclusions based on race—yes, all of us—of all races. Because these characters “crash” into one another, they learn things—mostly about themselves.”
Stephanie Zacharek of SALON.com wrote,” As the lives of these people criss-cross and intersect—their hidden prejudices are exposed and their outright on-the-surface ones are emphasized. They make their feeling known with the kind of authoritative speechifying that exists only in movies. If racism is so pervasive in our society—why do we need such an elaborately contrived plot to drive home the message? I mean—how many racists does it take to screw in the point?”
Mark Isham composed the powerful musical score for CRASH. He studied classical piano, trumpet, and the violin from an early age. He has played in various rock and jazz bands. He has worked with the Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell. He has composed 97 film scores since 1983. His first score was for NEVER CRY WOLF (1983). Later he did THE MODERNS (1988), A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT (1992), NELL (1994), BLADE (1998), LIFE AS A HOUSE (2001), and MOONLIGHT MILE (2002). As well as writing film scores—he is in constant demand as a trumpeter—and is very accomplished with a synthesizer program. With my second viewing of CRASH, I began to really appreciate the music—heavy with blues/rock/jazz interludes. He also used Persian music and operatic pieces to heighten the moods. I consider Isham a top-notch composer—inhabiting the rarified air of a James Horner, John Williams, or the late Jerry Goldsmith.
Don Cheadle played Detective Graham Waters—who came as close as any to being a pivotal character—a protagonist of sorts—in the multilayered multiethnic multicolored plot. As a homicide detective—he had fought his way to the gold shield—riding over the top of many stunned egos. He was good at his job—but he harbored his pain from the past—and negotiated his way around the racial and political pitfalls.
Cheadle has appeared in 36 films since 1985. He started getting noticed after he played Pvt. Washburn in HAMBURGER HILL (1987). He played Mouse Alexander in DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (1995), and nearly stole the film from the powerful Denzel Washington. Cheadle won an LA Critic’s Award for playing Mouse. He was astronaut Luke Graham in MISSION TO MARS (2000), Montel Gordon in TRAFFIC (2000), and after CRASH, he went on to playing Paul Rusesabagina in HOTEL RWANDA (2004).
Cheadle once said,” I have been doing this since I was ten years old—inhabiting different people—and playing different roles. Now, thirty years later, there’s still some excitement from it. It’s still fun. So it’s all in the panoply of acting.”
Matt Dillon played Sgt. Ryan, LAPD—a conflicted patrol officer that presented the world his hard shell, his arrogance, and his abuse of his constabulatory position. Perhaps the streets, sweeping up the scum, made him that way. Perhaps it cost him a marriage or several relationships. But he had another side to his nature as well—a heightened sense of duty that could be impervious to danger—and a willingness to perform his duties—no matter what the peril. He had the stuff of heroes. In combat—he would have been a survivor. He would have been the one you would want to try and be like and be near. He lived with his father, and did his best to care for him. The tenderness he showed his father belied the harshness demonstrated in plying his trade.
Dillon’s performance in CRASH—despite the brevity of his scenes—elevates him to a new dramatic status. He seems to have a lot more range as an actor than he has been able, or asked to demonstrate in the last several decades. Punks, killers, and troubled youths have been the mainstay of his film career—like in KANSAS (1988) and GOLDEN GATE (1994). His emotional range as Sgt. Ryan was astonishing—from blatant abuser—where he frisked Thandie Newton, basically molesting her in front of her husband—to angry consumer as he argued with that HMO clerk [Loretta Devine as Shaniqua Johnson]—and shared with her the Caucasian anthem regarding affirmative action—to reluctant hero, during his second encounter with Thandie Newton as she hung upside down and trapped in a soon-to-explode Lincoln Navigator—to a compassionate and grieving son holding his father’s head as his Dad struggled with his painful urinary tract infection. When he greeted his now ex-partner, Hanson—who had asked for a transfer to escape Ryan’s hardnosed approach to police work—Dillon assured the younger cop that perhaps after he had been seasoned a bit more—he would understand things more clearly.
Officer Ryan: You think you know who you are?
[Officer Hanson nods]
Officer Ryan: You have no idea.
Matt Dillon has appeared in 40 films since 1979. He was the bully, Melvin Moody, in MY BODYGUARD (1980). In 1979, he had been the original choice to play young Richard—playing opposite Brooke Shields in THE BLUE LAGOON (1980)—but he turned it down because of the excessive nudity. He was the charismatic Dallas in Coppola’s THE OUTSIDERS (1983), and the punk Rusty in RUMBLE FISH (1983). I liked him as J.C. in the otherwise lackluster THE BIG TOWN (1987)—in which he shared a love scene with the nubile and very nude Diane Lane. He was Bob, the hustler in Gus Van Sant’s cult hit, DRUGSTORE COWBOY. He was Terry, the American, in the interesting offbeat Irish Indie, FRANKIE STARLIGHT (1995). He mixed it up with William Fichtner and Gary Sinese in ALBINO ALLIGATOR (1996). He has traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, and from out of his adventures came CITY OF GHOSTS (2002), which he wrote, had his directorial debut, and starred in with James Caan. The film was an odd homage to THE THIRD MAN (1949). It was a kind of film noir goes east. It almost works—but then it doesn’t. It is worth a look—even though the critics did not warm to it and if suffered a limited release.
Dillon lives in New York City these days, and he seems to love it, saying,
“It is a very vibrant city—there is so much to do here. It’s so diverse.” Well, after the laconic lethargy of Los Angeles—I’m sure he’s right. In the 90’s, he went out with Cameron Diaz for several years.
Sandra Bullock played Jean Cabot—the trophy wife of the LA District Attorney, Richard Cabot. She had this character down cold—with the perfect hair, fashion statement wardrobe, and manicure—the cold arrogance and conceit. Her character had little redeeming qualities—but like the others in this film, circumstances dictated that she behave in a way contrary to our first impression of her.
Bullock as Jean, after the trauma of the carjacking, had the door locks in their home replaced. Staring at Daniel, the Hispanic locksmith sent to do the job, she said to Rick—within earshot of Daniel:
Jean: I would like the locks changed again in the morning.
Rick: You what? Look, why don’t you just go lie down, ok? Have you checked on James?
Jean: Well of course I’ve checked on James. I’ve checked on him every five minutes since we’ve been home. Do not patronize me. I want the locks changed again in the morning.
Rick: Shhhh. It’s ok. Just go to bed, alright?
Jean: Ok? Didn’t I just tell you not to treat me like a child?
Maria: I’m sorry, Mrs. Jean. It’s okay—I go home now?
Rick: It’s okay. Thank you very much for staying Maria.
Maria: You’re welcome. No problem. Goodnight, Mrs. Jean.
Jean: (rudely) Goodnight. I would like the locks changed again in the morning. And you know what—you might mention that the next time we’d appreciate it if they didn’t send a gang member!
Rick: A gang member?
Jean: Yes, yeah.
Rick: What do you mean? That kid in there?
Jean: Yeah—that guy in there with the shaved head, the pants around his ass, and the prison tattoos.
Rick: Oh, come on—those aren’t prison tattoos.
Jean: Oh, really? And he is not going to go sell our key to one of his gang banger friends the moment he’s out our door?
Rick: Look, you’ve had a really tough night. I think it’d be best if you’d go upstairs right now and---
Jean: And what? Wait for them to break in? (yelling) Goddamnit—I’ve just had a gun pointed in my face.
Rick: You lower your voice.
Jean: (continuing to yell)—and it was my fault because I knew it was going to happen. But if a white person sees two black men walking towards her and she turns and walks away—she’s a racist, right? Well, I got scared and I didn’t do anything and ten seconds later I had a gun in my face. Now I am telling you—your amigo in there is going to sell our key to one of his homies—and this time it would be really fucking great if you acted like you gave a shit!
Later, Bullock was talking on the cell phone to one of her girlfriends, and she had a great monologue. It went something like,” Yes, I am angry. I’m mad at those bastards that carjacked us—mad at Maria for dozens of things—mad at Rick for not really listening to me—mad at that gang banger that installed my door locks, just setting us up to get ripped off—mad at the gardener for over watering the lawn—mad at those idiots at our laundry that ruined another one of my blouses. Honestly—it feels that the moment I wake up, I’m already angry. Why do I feel this way? Oh, I understand—I’m very busy too. Talk to you later.”
It occurred to me that some of her anger might have something to do with her emotions. Perhaps husband Rick was not giving her enough quality time or attention—or perhaps she sensed that during those endless hours that Rick was putting in at the office—he might be having an affair with his beautiful black assistant? The roots of her problem were there within her “perfect” marriage and privileged lifestyle. After talking with her friend, she clicked the cell phone shut, standing there in her cotton socks, and immediately she slipped on the waxed hardwood floor at the top of the stairs—and tumbled down them into a heap at the bottom. She had hurt herself—spraining her back. She called her girlfriend—who couldn’t come to help because she was in the middle of a massage. Her savior turned out to be her maid, Maria—who drove her to the doctor. I think that Jean was truly a tragic figure—isolated by her wealth, arrogance, and paranoia.
When she hugged Maria, her voice sounded sincere as she said:
Jean: Do you want to hear something funny?
Maria: What’s that, Mrs. Jean?
Jean: You’re the best friend I have.
Bullock has appeared in 37 films since 1987. She attracted some notice flirting with Sly Stallone as Lt. Lenina Huxley in DEMOLITION MAN (1993). Her breakthrough role was Ms. Annie Porter in SPEED (1994). She said,” You know, everyone told me that I should pass on SPEED—because it was just a “bus movie”. I liked her as the ex-cheerleader [she was a cheerleader in High School] and recent divorcee Birdie Pruitt in HOPE FLOATS (1998). She was interesting as the flawed Cassie in MURDER BY NUMBERS (2002). She had replaced Demi Moore to do WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING (1995). At one point she was considered for the lead in RUNAWAY BRIDE—that went to Julia Roberts. In 1996, PEOPLE magazine chose her as one of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World”. She owns a mansion in Austin, Texas, and another one on Tybee Island in Georgia. In 2001, after 9/11—she donated 1 million dollars to the American Red Cross. She did it again in 2004 after the tsunami disaster in Asia. She received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this year (2005). Salary-wise, she received 500k for her role in SPEED in 1994, and was up to 15 million for her role in MURDER BY NUMBERS in 2002.
Brendan Fraser played District Attorney Richard “Rick” Cabot. He found just the right amount of conceit, good looks, political machinations, insincerity posing as sincerity—and ethnic attitudes buried behind closed doors—masked in tokenism and affirmative action. As Rick—trying to bolster his sagging image-- decided to have his picture taken with a black fireman who had been a hero just the week before.
“The man is Iranian,” one of his male assistants told him.
“An Arab? But he looks so black,” Rick said.
“Yes—he is very dark-skinned—but he is Persian and his name is Osama.”
Fraser’s scenes had the sting and taste of the best moments of the hit TV series, WEST WING. Watching politics can be so much fun, and their image can be 75% of it. After all good works, duty, honesty, compassion— pale in comparison to “image”.
Brendan Fraser was born in Canada, and was trained in Seattle—at the Actor’s Conservatory with the Cornish College of the Arts. He was trained in, and he would like to do more theatre. He has logged 21 television appearances and has been in 37 films since 1991. His first big hit came playing the prehistoric character “Link” in ENCINO MAN (1992). He became pals with Pauly Shore, and has appeared uncredited as Link in both SON IN LAW (1993), and IN THE ARMY (1994). He was quite good as the iconoclastic blue collar David in SCHOOL TIES (1992)— a very good little film, sharing the screen with Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Chris O’Donnell. I thought Fraser was excellent as Clayton Boone in GODS AND MONSTERS (1998)—playing off Sir Ian McKellen. Then he hit the big time and the big bucks playing Rick O’Connell in THE MUMMY (1999)—and cleaned up doing the sequel THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001). I liked his work as Alden Pyle in THE QUIET AMERICAN (2002)—working with Michael Caine. Fraser has appeared in a series of lucrative clunkers as well—like GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE (1997), DUDLEY DO-RIGHT (1999), MONKEYBONE (2001), and LOONEY TUNES; BACK IN ACTION (2003).
Fraser has dual citizenship—Canadian and American—much like William Shatner and Donald Sutherland. He speaks fluent French—which he hasn’t used in a film yet. He received rave reviews for appearing in a London production of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF in 2001. He came off that to film the MUMMY sequel. He had received 4 million dollars to star in THE MUMMY in 1997. He received 12.5 million dollars to do the sequel—thus the dirty little secret is revealed as to why the original stars often are willing to do an inferior sequel.
David Edelstein of SLATE wrote,” It is hard to feel morally elevated when you are also feeling talked down to. CRASH might have been a landmark film about race relations has its aura of blunt realism not been dispelled by a toxic cloud of dramaturgical pixie dust.
Paul Haggis still thinks like a pugilist. He softens you up with a series of blows to the head—then pummels your gut—and in one scene (with the Latino little daughter) he hammers you a few inches lower. He is so relentless that you just have to laugh—but you are also transfixed—because the cast of great actors is going full throttle—and the film makes a gaudy show of its own momentousness.
Haggis wants to distill all the resentment and hypocrisy among races into one fierce parable. But a universe in which we are all racist puppets is finally just as simple minded and predictable as on in which we are all smiling multi-colored multi-racial zombies in a rainbow coalition.”
Thandie Newton played Christine—the light-skinned outspoken wife of the black TV director. Returning from an awards show in their black Navigator—which just so happened to look like the one Rick & Jean Cabot had carjacked earlier in Century City—Christine had had a few too many drinks and was feeling frisky. She decided to perform fellatio on her husband, Cameron—as they drove. Behind them appeared a police patrol car—driven by Officer Ryan. He put the spotlight on their back window. Newton’s head bobbed up into the light—and it became obvious what she had been doing. Ryan pulled them over—despite the protests of his partner, Officer Hanson. He rousted the couple, after Christine used some vulgar language, and he forced them to put their hands on the Navigator’s roof and lean spread-legged against their vehicle while the cops frisked them.
Christine said something like,” You thought I was a white woman, didn’t you? It just chapped your cracker ass to think that a white woman might be going down on a black man right in your face?”
Thandie Newton has appeared in 14 television episodes and 18 films since 1991. She was Sally in JEFFERSON IN PARIS (1995), Beloved in BELOVED. [Her full name—Thandiwe—in Zimbabwean means “beloved”.] She was the venomous Dame Vaako in THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK (2004). Because she was involved in an extended shoot on MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2 (2000), she was forced to down the Lucy Lu role in CHARLIE’S ANGELS (2000).
Terrence Howard played Cameron—the successful TV director. He did a terrific job conveying the torment of having to face his own tokenism. He was considered a success, but only at the whim of more successful and more powerful white producers and agents. He was so used to just absorbing racial slur and ignorance heaped on him by his superiors—that he found himself allowing Officer Ryan to basically molest his wife in his presence. From his perspective—they were cops with guns. What the hell was he expected to do? Force the issue—or get himself arrested—or worse shot or beat to death? When Christine chastised him for selling out, shuffling, and cowardice—it all began to chew on his insides like a cancerous demon. It opened his eyes and he did not like what he saw. His work became a cruel drudgery—and his wife did not immediately forgive him.
Driving home from work—consumed with anger, guilt, and resentment—he stopped at a stop sign—and our two friendly carjackers leaped up and pointed their guns in his face. He went ballistic, jumping out of the Navigator. He knocked down the taller of the two black youths and disarmed him. He began to kick and beat the kid. The shorter thug kept warning him to stop—or suffer the pain of death! But nothing was going to stop Cameron this time—not even the threat of death. The demon was in his eyes. He was not going to compromise, give in, accommodate, or sell out again. Then the police showed up.
Anthony, the taller kid, tried to take the Navigator. Peter, the shorter kid, ran off quickly—disappearing down an alley and over several fences. The police were yelling for everyone to halt. But Cameron pushed Anthony out the way, grabbed the steering wheel, and raced off with the police in pursuit. It didn’t make a lot of sense—but it was the kind of reckless thing that desperate men do sometimes. After a few minutes of chase, Cameron pulled over in a residential neighborhood in someone’s driveway. Officer Hanson had joined the pursuit. Both police cruisers were parked behind him, and the police had their guns drawn.
Stressed to his last nerve, with Anthony cowering down in the seat—Cameron shoved the kid’s pistol in the back of his belt—and got out to face the cops. They demanded that he lie face down in the driveway. But Cameron stood stunned and defiant—yelling back at them belligerently. We all feel that at any moment, whether he pulls the pistol or not, he was going to be cut down in a hail of bullets—possibly murdered by the zealous and overanxious LAPD. But then Officer Hanson recognized him from that earlier incident. Hanson intervened and saved his life.
“I didn’t ask for your help,” was all that Cameron could stammer.
He is told to simply back off and go home. He partially comes to his senses, and says,” I can do that.”
Moments later he dropped gangster Anthony off at a nearby street corner. An interesting editing error occurred there. In the initial long shot, immediately after the vehicle pulled up to the curb, we see Anthony’s legs below the car as he got out. But in the next shot, he is still in the Navigator talking with Cameron.
Cameron: (To Anthony) You embarrass me. You embarrass yourself.
Terrence Dashon Howard has had 40 film appearances since 1992. He was in MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS (1995) with Richard Dreyfuss. He was Cowboy in DEAD PRESIDENTS (1995) with Larenz Tate. He was the hapless Lt. Scott in HART’S WAR (2003) with Bruce Willis, and he was Gossie in RAY (2004). He is a self-taught musician who plays piano and guitar.
Ryan Phillippe played the young Officer Hanson—the idealistic rookie cop that we all thought we knew—the sensitive fair-minded idealistic newbie who rejected the hardness of his former partner, Ryan—only to find that he himself was very capable of a heinous act within the blink of an eye. Haggis asks us do we truly know anyone--probably not. How often do our children, our friends, even our spouses surprise us with their actions? My lovely wife surprises me weekly with her depth, many secrets, and views that I only thought I understood.
Phillippe has appeared in 20 films since 1995. He was a regular on the soap opera, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, from 1992-93. His character, Billy Douglas, was daytime TV’s first gay teenager. His first film was CRIMSON TIDE in 1995. He was Gil in WHITE SQUALL (1996), the lethal Parker in WAY OF THE GUN (2000) with Benecio Del Toro, and Ollie in IGBY GOES DOWN (2002).
He has been married to Reese Witherspoon since 1999, and they have two kids. He has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He was in the running to play Mel Gibson’s son in THE PATRIOT (2000)—but lost it to Heath Ledger. Sadly, very sadly—he turned down the part of Anakin Skywalker in the last two of George Lucas’ STAR WARS. He would have been an immense improvement over the pouting posturing petulant Hayden Christianson. Phillippe has his own production company now—founded with fellow actors Seth Green and Breckin Meyer. He has said,” I will no longer just be an actor for hire. Now I have a passion for producing and making films.” When he made LITTLE BOY BLUE in 1997, he was paid 200k. He was paid 2 million to appear in CRASH (2005).
Larenz Tate played hoodlum Peter Waters—the punk with the sense of humor and the love of his plastic statue of St. Christopher. Tate, somehow, made his carjacker character likeable and sardonic. He did not appear that much in the film—but he had one of those parts that were very important to the plot—mostly through implication and revelation.
Tate has appeared in a lot of TV episodes since 1990. He has made 12 films since 1994. Often he has carried lead roles. He was young Drew in THE INKWELL (1994). He was Anthony in DEAD PRESIDENTS (1995), Ford Lincoln Mercury in THE POSTMAN (1997) [ reminiscent of Mos Def as Ford Prefect in THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (2005), and Andrew Dice Clay as FORD FAIRLAINE (1990)], and he was very good as Frankie Lymon in WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE?(1998). Last year he played Quincy Jones in RAY (2004).
In the early part of the film, Anthony and Peter are strolling along a well lit street in Century City. Anthony is talking as they approach a pair of white persons—who turn out to be Rick and Jean Cabot.
Anthony: Look around! You couldn’t find a whiter, safer, or better lit part of the city. But this white woman sees two black guys, who look like UCLA students, strolling down the sidewalk—and her reaction is blind fear. I mean, look at us! Are we dressed like gang bangers? Do we look threatening? No. In fact, if anybody should be scared—it’s us—the only two black faces surrounded by a sea of over-caffeinated white people—patrolled by the trigger-happy LAPD. So, why aren’t we scared?
Peter: Because we have guns?
Anthony: You could be right.
Ludacris (aka Chris Bridges) played Anthony—the philosophizing carjacker and hoodlum. His character, like so many others in this film, was not so easy to pigeon hole. He seemed to have a thief’s ethics—claiming that he would never rob another black person—but ended up endeavoring to carjack Cameron—who was black. When Anthony was offered a lot of money, 500 bucks per head, for a van load of Cambodian refugees that he hadn’t realized was in the back of a van that he stole (after he had run down the Chinese man who was trying to get into it earlier)—he opted to turn down the money. He drove to China Town—thinking all Asians looked Chinese. He set them all free—even forking over his last forty bucks to help them get food. Somehow this act made him feel good. He was unaware at the time that his partner, Peter, had been capped by Officer Hanson. As the Cambodians wandered about the streets of China Town LA—their dirty faces reflected the eternal hopes of all those who immigrate—however they come—to America, the land of abundance, excess, and freedom.
Ludacris, called Luda or Cris, has been an actor in six films since 2001—including 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS (2003). He has had 25 TV guest appearances—mostly as a musical guest, as himself. He is now a very successful Hip-Hop/Rap artist who acts—like Ice Cube and Mos Def. A number of Ludacris’ songs have been used in movies. His biggest hit song is BACK FOR THE FIRST TIME. He has released several albums—like WORD OF MOUF—which has gone triple platinum. He has toured with Eminem. In 2002—Ludacris was dropped as a Pepsi spokesperson after Fox’s Bill Reilly called him,” A thug rapper, who espouses violence, intoxication, and degrading conduct toward women.”
Michael Pena played Daniel—the Hispanic locksmith—who may have had the most sympathetic role in the film. With his shaved head, numerous tattoos, and low rider pants—he appeared to be street smart and gang-fresh. Actually he was a hero. Bravely he had moved his small daughter and wife out of East LA—where a bullet had come through his daughter’s bedroom window. Now he had a good job and a useful trade. His daughter was enrolled in Catholic school—[here we go assuming again; judging by the uniforms that she and her classmates wore.] As a younger man, he may have been a gang member—but he had cleaned up his act. His scenes with his young daughter were very touching.
In one of the most emotional of the film’s scenes— it appeared that the Iranian shopkeeper, Farhad, in his despair and frustration—had fired a pistol point blank range at Daniel—just as his little daughter leaped into his arms wanting to use her fantasy protective cape to protect her Daddy—the terrible look of dread on Daniel’s face and his wife’s and Farhad’s—was classic—an action at its most tragic. Daniel emitted the ‘silent scream”—and it tore our heart out. That very moment was used as the main icon for the one-sheet to advertise the film.
And then, miraculously, we discovered that the little girl was unhurt.
“The cloak worked good,” she whispered in Daniel’s ear. The family rushed into their home—leaving Farhad stunned in the street. Finally he pocketed his pistol and fled.
Shaun Toub played Farhad—the Persian shopkeeper. He always seemed to be angry at people—primarily because his language skills were inadequate and minimal—and he seemed stalled in his Islamic gruffness and culture. He misunderstood a lot of what was said to him. In the beginning of the movie, he got into a shouting match with the gun shop owner (Jack McGee—wonderful on the television series, RESCUE ME). His daughter, Dorri, had to conclude their business as he was escorted, still shouting, out of the shop. She had to choose the kind of ammunition needed for the pistol.
Bahar Soomekh was Dorri. She understood the kind of angry man her father was—and she knew from moment one what he might do with that new “defensive” weapon. As she indicated her choice of ammunition, the store owner asked her if she truly understood what kind of ammunition is was. She nodded. We never are allowed to see the print on the side of the bright red ammunition box. I felt that she intentionally bought blanks. David Gilmour pointed out that after all, she was a forensics worker at the local city morgue [One had to look sharply to notice her in the scene where Detective Graham Water’s mother had to view the body of her slain youngest son]—and she understood what bullets could do.
There is a scene, blessed synchronicity—where Farhad is attempting to talk with Daniel, who had been dispatched to replace the lock on the shopkeeper’s back door. He asked Daniel if the door was fixed. Daniel said no—that the lock had been changed—but what really needed to be done was the replacement of the door. Farhad did not understand—and once again he became volcanically angry. He feared that he was being cheated—that Daniel probably had a friend who fixed doors. They got into a yelling match. In frustration—Daniel crumpled up the bill and trashed it—and left the premises unpaid. If he had stayed longer—he might not have been able to control himself.
The next morning, of course, Farhad found the rear door forced open, and his shop had been robbed and vandalized. It was completely trashed. He blamed the locksmith immediately. Daniel had not, after all, “fixed the fucking door!” Then he received the news from an Asian insurance man that the insurance company would not pay the damages or honor the claim—because they read Daniel’s report—recommending that Farhad replace the door. After much despair and self-pity, Farhad gathered up his new gun, pulled out the locksmith’s bill—and decided to pay Daniel a visit. How he actually got the address is not clear. Certainly the Locksmith Company would not have given it to him. But that did not occur to us watching the action. A tragedy was unfolding.
Following the “Miracle of the Blanks”, after Farhad returned to his trashed shop, his daughter, Dorri, questioned him.
Dorri: What have you done, papa?
Farhad: I shot a little girl.
Farhad: No—she is alright. Somehow—she is alright. I shot her and she saved us—all of us. She is my angel. She has come to protect us. It’s all going to be OK now. Here—you take this back.
Farhad handed Dorri the pistol. She went to the cash drawer, and removed the red box of ammo. That is when we were allowed to read WINCHESTER BLANKS on the box.
William Fichtner played Jake Flanagan—the DA’s special assistant—the spinmeister. His scene with Don Cheadle was excellent. But I kept wondering, both times I watched the film—why did he need a shave so badly? He was sporting a week’s growth of beard. Was he committed to another film, where he needed to keep the beard—and he just did this scene as a favor?
Fichtner has appeared in 40 films since 1987. He started out appearing on the soap opera, AS THE WORLD TURNS (1987-93). He worked with Matt Dillon in ALBINO ALLIGATOR in 1996. He was Col. Sharp in ARMAGEDDON (1998), Sully in THE PERFECT STORM (2000), and he was good as Sanderson in BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001).
All the rest of the supporting cast was strong as well. Jennifer Esposito was very good as Rea—Cheadle’s police partner and sexual partner. As a Latino who seemed to dislike Asians—she provided a lot of intensity for the plot—while looking wonderful doing it. Her nude scene with Cheadle was both humorous and heartbreaking. Where was the love? Keith David was the sarcastic stalwart Lt. Dixon. His one scene with Officer Hanson was both pivotal and spoke volumes about affirmative action, tokenism and police departmental politics. Tony Danza, almost unrecognizable with grey hair and scruffy unshaven demeanor, played Fred—the TV producer who put the pressure on Cameron to think blacker, project blacker—perhaps even be blacker—for the sake of the authenticity of the show. This kind of character is beyond the normal range that Danza has tackled in the past. He was quite good, like Fichtner, in his one brief scene—and this was a stretch for Danza. It was the kind of character that a Roy Schieder or a William Devane could have played in their sleep. Loretta Devine was Shaniqua Johnson—the HMO cleric. Her hard line responses to Matt Dillon’s rude and racist inquiries resulted in more conflict.
Not everyone felt that Haggis had fully developed his stable of diver’s characters. James Berardinelli of REEL VIEW wrote, “The best ensemble films are the ones in which the characters are given an opportunity to breathe—MAGNOLIA, SHORT CUTS, and NASHVILLE come to mind. With CRASH, 105 minutes is barely enough time to let the numerous participants began to exhale.
For the most part, CRASH is pleasant enough—and it deals with serious subjects—but it’s difficult to shake the sensation that the characters are only half-formed. And the director’s use of coincidence, karma, and irony to end nearly every plot thread is so forced that it comes across as a contrivance—rather than a natural direction. It also takes away from the humanity of the characters.”
Peter Travers of ROLLING STONE wrote,” Alive with bracing human drama and blistering wit—the film benefits from the strong directing debut of Paul Haggis. The acting is dynamite, notably by Dillon and Newton. Despite its preachy moments—the film is a knockout. In multiplexes starved for ambitions—why kick a film with an excess of it?”
I found this film to audacious and fearless—as well as ambitious. I think that we are all socialized into feeling protective about our family, our friends—then our neighborhood—then our school—then our city. This prickly elitism—this deep pride naturally grows into nationalism—mantled with patriotism. “Where you from, son?” asks the president or general—looking for leverage—exercising control through our emotions and loyalties. Soon we find ourselves focusing on our very uniqueness rather than what we have in common with the rest of humanity. Then we become insulated, opinionated, narrow-minded, fearful, sexist, and racist. Then we are prime targets for the blatant manipulation by politicians, demagogues, and facists—and those dark entities that inhabit all three personas. Christ—when does it stop? When do we step back and wise up?
A film like CRASH puts the inevitability of multiracial coexistence out there—for us to face and ponder—or not. In another hundred years, perhaps we could manage to breed ourselves back into just one race—the Earthite—dark-skinned and beautiful—a whole planet of Adams and Eves. So that when we finally, irrevocably, make contact with the Extraterrestrials—we will do so as one race—one mind—homo sapien prime—of this planet—ready now to parlay. We all love the cultural and religious diversity of our hundreds of dozens of ethnic groups—and yet we find ourselves drenched in wars, deceit, greed, and the wasted lives of our youngest generation of cannon fodder. As a species—have we come so far in the last century? Yes—and no—comes the clarion murmur. One thing is certain—we have a great distance yet to go.
The ubiquitous Roger Ebert wrote in conclusion,” Not many films have the possibility of making their audiences better people. I don’t expect CRASH to perform miracles—but I believe anyone seeing it is likely to be moved to have a little more sympathy for people not like themselves. You may have to work hard to see it, but CRASH is a film about progress.”
I loved this film. I would rate it 4.5 stars, both for its challenge and its message
Glenn Buttkus (2005)