Film: Grand Plans, Good Intentions

Crash's crosscutting L.A. narrative falters while Kingdom of Heaven is a rousing look at the Crusades

May 4, 2005 at 2:06 pm
The banter between car thief buds Lorenz Tate (left) and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges is one of Crash's greatest assets.

Despite multiple, often underdeveloped plot lines and a vast ensemble cast, the lofty themes are crystal clear in Crash, the debut film from Million Dollar Baby scribe Paul Haggis. As long as there is hope — Haggis wants you to believe — there is a chance for spiritual redemption.

Crash is earnest, idealized filmmaking, a shot by Haggis to say something meaningful as much as to entertain. The film stumbles as often as it sprints but Haggis (who co-wrote the script with Bobby Moresco) deserves credit for pushing his social issues to the forefront.

Crash's stories take place over 36 hours in Los Angeles, but it often feels much longer. The ensemble cast is diverse, from their pocketbooks to their complexions, but they connect via a single core theme: race, or the inability of people of varying races to get along.

Listed in the order of quality performances are: Don Cheadle, Thandie Newton, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Larenz Tate, Terrence Howard, Ryan Phillippe, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito and Sandra Bullock.

Cheadle is Graham Waters, a LAPD detective with a drug addicted mother and a younger brother who's a petty car thief. Waters washes his hands clean of his mother and younger brother (Tate), even when they need his help most. Cheadle's soft voice and sensitive performance are the best things about Crash.

He's a compelling vehicle for Haggis' good intentions.

The one element equal to Cheadle is the banter between Tate and Ludacris' car thief buds. Their friendship is dead-on accurate and often funny. If Cheadle, Ludacris and Tate had more screen time, Crash would be a better movie.

Dillon has the all-American looks needed to play a bigoted LAPD cop but never rises above the clichés of his character. He has one good scene only because Newton, playing a woman trapped in a wrecked car, pulls him up to a higher level of dramatic tension and emotion.

Sandra Bullock is the pampered wife to Brendan Fraser's district attorney who comes undone after a car-jacking in Santa Monica. Bullock and Fraser attempt to step away from their comic personas with Crash, but fail to make any impact.

Unlike the L.A. films Haggis hopes to match — Robert Altman's Short Cuts or Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia — Los Angeles is more generic backdrop than the strong supporting character and landmark city it's meant to be.

There are car accidents throughout the film: Cars are metaphors for the cold and uncaring treatment of people towards each other. But Crash could take place anywhere. It's the biggest missed opportunity by Haggis and cinematographer J. Michael Muro in a film full of missteps.

Still, to Haggis' credit, Crash falters because he aims high. It's easier to forgive syrupy sentiment when a filmmaker has such good intentions.

Director Ridley Scott uses hope, glory and tragedy to tell Kingdom of Heaven, his gigantic drama about the Crusades. When it comes to crafting period epics, Kingdom of Heaven proves that Scott is as good as it gets. He's the new David Lean, someone completely at ease with large canvas storytelling — although bloody machismo replaces the romance of Lean's Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia.

Set in 1185, Balian (Orlando Bloom) is a blacksmith from rural France who reunites with his father, the knight Godfrey of Ibelin (Lian Neeson), and travels to Jerusalem.

Balian fights in the decades-long war between the Christians and the Muslims, serves his doomed king, Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), and falls in love with Baldwin's exotic sister, the Princess Sibylla (Eva Green).

There are desert battlefields with thousands of people, huge medieval war machines, siege towers and catapults. But the finer details and subtle character traits shine in Kingdom of Heaven.

The clash of two civilizations and the tolerance takes place in the context of a credible love story, and for every bloody battle there are two scenes of emotional human contact.

Liam Neeson matches the gusto of Scott's filmmaking as Godfrey, who is as much a fighter as he is a counsel and father figure to Balian. Jeremy Irons crackles with energy as the king's raspy-voiced chief adviser, Tiberias. Ghassan Massoud, a well-known Syrian actor, is the most heroic of all, as Saladin, the wise Saracen general and leader of the Muslim people.

Eva Green, last seen in The Dreamers, makes the most of her delicate shoulders and wide smile. She does what is needed of her: presenting Sibylla as a woman worth fighting for.

Bloom makes a handsome hero and shows the heartache behind his rigorous journey. He is best at scenes of emotional grief. In terms of battle, Bloom is too effete to be completely effective. He would benefit from some of Russell Crowe's macho posturing.

The bloody climax is the Battle of Hattin, where Saladin lays siege to Jerusalem. Yet, despite the carnage, Scott has created a film that is more about peace than war.

Kingdom of Heaven is about a far-off, exotic land but Scott makes it relevant to today. There is hostility between the West and the Islamic world yet Kingdom of Heaven reminds us that it does not need to be this way.

Crash grade: C; Kingdom of Heaven grade: B