Though the executives of movie studios need to make tons of money to keep their jobs, they also want to hang on to their self-respect. So every other month, among the scores of chop-sockey action films, horror movies, lighter-than-air comedies, and gross-out farces, we find a Big Serious Exception playing at the nearest multiplex.
In May, the BSE was Crash. Its theme could not be more timely or important: the way Americans bedevil themselves and torment one another with racial stereotypes. As writer-director Paul Haggis (scriptwriter of Million Dollar Baby) sees it, racist speech and actions are the byproducts of the frustrations of the way we live now. Here are some examples from this multi-character, episodic Los Angeles drama. A rich housewife, recently carjacked by black criminals, doesn’t feel safe when the locks of her house are changed because the locksmith (soon to be shown as an honest family man) is Hispanic and has tattoos. A cop, whose ailing father received indifferent treatment from a black medical insurance bureaucrat, works out his anger by sexually humiliating a rich black married couple. An African-American detective gets pressured into suppressing evidence during a murder investigation so that his white superiors can look like good liberals by the next election, then vents his frustration on his Hispanic squad-car partner (and girlfriend) by making slurs about Latinos. And so on. It is a round robin of bigotry. If someone has humiliated you, you pass on the victimization to the next sucker. None of the characters is ideologically motivated, but anger arms itself with the language and red-faced rage of racism. There may be merit in Haggis’s perception.
And yet Crash is a terrible movie. Sociological insight cannot take the place of dexterous storytelling and believable characterizations. Crash’s plot devices are wacky and its people are puppets. Not content to have the many characters pass in and out of one another’s lives within a twenty-four-hour period, Haggis also must have each one show up precisely at the crisis point of at least one other character. When that young black wife humiliated by the racist cop gets caught in a burning car during a highway pileup, guess who shows up to save her? And while the bigoted cop is saving the wife, her husband is getting into a risky situation with the police in another area of L.A. but, not to worry, the bigot’s former squadcar partner just happens on the scene to save him. And these are only two of a dozen such coincidences. Apparently, Haggis thinks that Los Angeles is a village with a population of roughly a hundred people who can’t help running into one another two or three times a day. Attempting to make a serious, realistic film about a crucial problem, the filmmaker burdens his project with a plot so chockablock with coincidence that drama begins to resemble farce, the genre that most thrives on multiple coincidences.
If you compare Crash with another ensemble movie about racism and stereotyping, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, you can pinpoint just where Haggis goes wrong. Like Haggis, Lee uses a timeframe of twenty-four hours, and the paths of his many characters cross and crisscross. But Lee’s people, residents of a Brooklyn neighborhood that is indeed just like a village, seek each other out-for business, for company, for amour, for advice-to show derision, compassion, solidarity. They don’t just stray into one another’s company so that their creator can write a Big Scene. Character takes precedence over happenstance.
Crash suffers from a deeper and crasser flaw, which David Edelstein neatly nailed down in his review for Slate.com. Haggis seems to think that if you scratch a bigot, you automatically find a decent human being, and that if you scratch a decent human being, you inevitably find a bigot. Since the high-society dame played by Sandra Bullock mouths off viciously through most of the movie, she must embrace her Hispanic maid before the fade-out. Her motivation? She’s fallen down some steps and fractured her leg, and nobody else has given her a sympathy call. (Satire? Maybe, but neither the acting nor the direction achieves a satirical tone.) When bigoted, sexist cop Matt Dillon rescues Thandie Newton from that blazing car, he primly pulls down her skirt as he yanks her out. Sure, even a racist may act courageously in the heat of action, but when did this brutal bully become a New Age sensitive guy? Conversely, Ryan Phillipe’s decent rookie patrolman behaves so virtuously that Haggis must scratch hard to find his dark side. Sure enough, at the end of his workday he is a kvetch who goads a black youngster into reaching for a gun (which turns out to be a St. Christopher statue) and shoots him dead. Haggis has been praised for creating complex characters. But simply to supply a character with wildly contrasting traits doesn’t guarantee complexity. It merely guarantees that movie critics, hungry to believe that Hollywood still caters to adults, will praise you for a complexity that isn’t there.
Ridley Scott, the director of Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, has one huge strength: he keeps giving you things to look at. Serving up exotic locales, spectacular landscapes (or spacescapes), extreme weather, vicious villains, roiling violence, graphic gore, he’s like David Lean on speed. Lean dazzled his audiences but Scott hammers them, sometimes leaving them slightly sickened even when impressed (for example, Hannibal). Often he has to stun them or somebody might notice how badly written G.I. Jane and Black Rain were, or that there is a hole in the center of the narrative where a hero should be.
That’s the case with Kingdom of Heaven. Young Balian the blacksmith (really the bastard of a French warlord) should be interesting since he is headed to the Holy Land of the twelfth century to redeem the suicide of his wife and expiate his murder of an extremely creepy priest. In the course of his crusade, he falls in love with a queen, kills scores of bad guys (mostly renegade Crusaders in this politically correct film, but also many Muslims during the climactic siege), wins the respect of Saladin, takes command of Jerusalem, loses the city but saves its population.
But the script-in which every character utters apothegms made of concrete (“God will understand. If he does not, he is not God.”)-renders this mighty doer of deeds a hollow bore: no unexpected decisions, no offbeat quirks, no contradictions, and no impediments that can’t be overcome by screenwriter William Monahan’s whimsies. Balian learns expert swordfighting in a single one-minute lesson, and goes from being a blacksmith to a Napoleonic general without any apprenticeship. Shorn of his blonde tresses and Tolkien elf ears, Orlando Bloom here proves to be a dull actor indeed. As he gazes at a grave while mourning, at Saladin with respect, or over desert sands in bewilderment, you supply the proper facial expressions in your mind’s eye because Bloom has but one doing duty for all. Then again, Bloom is playing a notion instead of a person. His speech to the troops before the final battle resembles a no-fault insurance claim: neither the Christians nor the Muslims are to blame for being about to slaughter one another; that’s just the way the historical cookie crumbled.
Still, Scott delivers the sights that any connoisseur of medieval epics longs to see (such aficionados constitute 89 percent of the male American population; I haven’t got the overseas figures handy). Fireballs are catapulted over ramparts, siege towers drenched in oil get set ablaze, neighing stallions rear, lots of arms and legs are lopped off, a battlefield is strewn with corpses, the piled-up helmets looking like shells on a beach.
Cinematographer John Mathieson renders the Moroccan shooting locations so vividly that we simmer in our seats, and the costume design tells us more about the interaction of Christian and Muslim cultures in Palestine than the script does. Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson give good performances as grizzled veterans, and as Saladin the excellent Syrian actor/director Ghassan Massoud possesses all the liquid-eyed, bruised nobility that true knight of the Islamic conquest deserves.
If you compare even the best combat scenes from Kingdom with the battle on ice from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 Alexander Nevsky, you can perceive the difference between a skilled mechanic and an artist. Eisenstein wanted to haunt your dreams. Ridley Scott just wants to make you sit up. He succeeds.