A film review by Craig J. Koban


2009, R, 114 mins.


Max: Harrison Ford / Cole: Ray Liotta / Denise: Ashley Judd / Gavin: Jim Sturgess / Hamid: Cliff Curtis / Mireya: Alice Braga

Written and directed by Wayne Kramer.

CROSSING OVER is one of the most well-intentioned bad movies that I have seen in quite some time.  


That is not to say that writer/director Wayne Kramer’s film is not ambitious; to the contrary.  Much like what Paul Haggis did with his multiple-Oscar winning CRASH, CROSSING OVER is a social drama that contains multiple-storylines involving multiple ethnicities coalescing at some point or another throughout the film.  Whereas Haggis’ film explored the modern world of race relations, Kramer’s film aims its crosshairs at the cross cultural mosaic of immigrants – both legal and illegal – in the United States as well as the bureaucratic systems in place that battle foreigners trying to unlawfully live an existence in the country. 


Alas, here’s the main problem with CROSSING OVER: It’s almost thematically ambiguous throughout its 114 minutes, in so much as to say that I never gained a clear or distinct impression that Kramer knew exactly what the film was supposed to be about and, more crucially, what it was trying to say.  Clearly, this CRASH-wannabe has a considerable amount to say, but it just does not know how to say it.  CROSSING OVER definitely lacks CRASH’s unnerving rawness and dramatic intensity and veracity: too much of the time Kramer hammers viewers over the heads with half-baked messages and parables like, for example, how many people from all over the globe desperately will do anything to live in the US even when their actions are criminal and will lead to unavoidable prosecution and certain deportation.  Oh, the film also, I guess, goes out of its way to say that the county’s immigration policies and enforcement are a twisted, amoral joke and are exercised by ethically deranged individuals.  


At times, CROSSING OVER is about as subtle as a racial slur. 


That’s really too bad, because Kramer, in my mind, was emerging as one of the most promising new filmmakers of the last few years.  Originally an immigrant from South Africa, he made a real splash with his 2003 Casino flick THE COOLER and made 2006’s memorably lurid, sleazy, but wholeheartedly entertaining, exploitation film, RUNNING SCARED (which contained Paul Walker’s only truly empowered performance).  Originally filmed two years ago, CROSSING OVER seemed doomed from the start, regardless of Kramer’s talent.  Despite having final cut authorization, he agreed – or maybe was coerced – by the Weinsteins to cut his film by 30 minutes after the studio heads reportedly threatened to send the film to the box office graveyard that is direct-to-video.  Furthermore, stars Harrison Ford and Sean Penn also made headlines for their apparent participation in the shaping of the film: The final product ultimately led to Ford doing virtually no press for the film’s release and Penn himself (who shot scenes for the film) developed such a fractured relationship with the makers that he divorced himself from it altogether and his scenes were excised.  With an endowed director like Kramer and a dream cast (which could have included Penn), this film should have worked. 


It doesn’t.


Again, this is not an easy film with simple black and white themes.  It deals with issues as far ranging as illegal immigrants, border and document fraud, the green card and asylum process, work-site enforcement and even manages to involve the offices of counter terrorism at one point.  We also get the obligatory stand-offs of the various cultures in the film, all struggling to gain some sort of semblance of what makes the other tick.  Kramer tackles all of this by telling several interlocking stories of immigrants and their respective families (from places as far ranging as Mexico, Korea, Nigeria, England, Australia, and Bangladesh).  The execution certainly feels borrowed and recycled, to be sure, but Kramer’s ultimate undoing is that his film never has a unifying focus: Are we supposed to pity the illegal immigrants in the film?  Understand them?  Vilify them?  Defend their motives?  I dunno.  And what of the immigration services and agents that guard the borders?  How are we supposed to respond to them?  Clearly, these institutions are flawed and troubled, but Kramer paints them in simplistically negative and broad strokes.  In the end, CROSSING OVER wants to be a significant film, but instead feels empty.


The film follows four distinct story arcs and they all, at some form or another, brush paths with one another throughout.  We first meet Max Brogan (Harrison Ford) who is an immigration officer that finds himself becoming emotionally involved with the lives of some of the people his agency is trying to deport.  He becomes touched by one in particular, an illegal Mexican (played in a painfully brief cameo by Alice Braga), who pleads with him to escort her son back to Mexico so he won’t be left by himself in L.A..  Begrudgingly, Max agrees to assist her, but she soon disappears after she is deported.  Max’s partner, Hamid Baraheri (the always solid and underrated Cliff Curtis) has immigration issues of his own with his Iranian family, especially in the form of his sister (Melody Khazae) who has become a black mark for the family.  Her offbeat appearance and crude social behavior brings some unwanted attention to Hamid's father, whom is soon to be sworn in as a citizen.


We then cut to the story of a beautiful Australian woman named Claire (Alice Eve, baring a striking resemblance at times to Nicole Kidman) that wants to be a big-name actress in Hollywood that would do anything to stay legally in the country.  When an attempt to secure forged documents is a failure, she becomes involved with a slimy and lecherous immigration processor name Cole Frankel (an unusually subdued Ray Liotta) that agrees to help her out…but with a rather large catch.  Claire in turn is semi-involved with an atheist Jew named Gavin (Jim Sturgess) that is trying to fake his way to legally status by proclaiming that he’s an orthodox Jew that takes his religion seriously.  Finally, the film deals with Cole’s wife, Denise (Ashley Judd, playing her role on pure Ashley Judd auto-pilot) who is a lawyer that is dealing with a 15-year-old girl named Taslima Jahangir (Summer Bishil) that is a sort of a double threat: she is an illegal alien plus she has made public comments that have made her a security threat to the US, at least in the minds of the FBI.


CROSSING OVER, despite its penchant for wanting to paint a grimly realistic portrait of its dicey immigration themes, bends modest credulity so extremely at so many times that I found it hard not to laugh at the film with mocking disdain.  First off, the subplot involving Claire and the immigration processor is borderline preposterous.  It’s just…absurd.  Just consider: Claire is essentially coerced into becoming Cole’s…wait for it…kinky sex slave for two months, whenever he wants her, in exchange for a chance of legalizing her status as an immigrant.  Here’s what makes no sense whatsoever: she is supposed to be absolutely repulsed and sickened by this cruel social monster, yet there are scenes upon scenes where we see her engaging in pre and post-sex pillow talk with this fiend and then we later see her sobbing away in the shower trying to wash his stench off of her.  Wouldn’t she not just want to rush in and out of these meetings as expeditiously as possible?  Why would she hang around any longer than she had to with this duplicitous loser?  Beat’s me.  Even more head-shiningly implausible and contrived is when Cole develops “feelings” for her at just the right moment in the screenplay.  To say that this story arc warps credibility is a gross understatement.  The only positive aspect of it is that we get to see Alice Eve naked throughout most of these moments, but the sheer voyeurism of her multiple gratuitous nude scenes seems at odds to the depressing and distressed tone that they are aiming for.


And…please…don’t get me started on the story thread involving the teenage girl that not only is an illegal immigrant, but also becomes a suspected terrorist.  There’s one scene early in the film that made me uncontrollably chuckle…unintentionally, of course.  During this moment this Muslim girl gives an impassioned speech as part of a class project that never once – not for one single second – would have been allowed to continue in any American classroom.  In her speech she tries to inform her befuddled and scornful classmates and disturbed teacher that she “understands” what the 9/11 terrorists were doing.  If anything, her speech comes off as radically pro-Jihadist and pro-terrorism, essentially trying to empathizing with the mindsets of these madmen.  Now, what the hell is Kramer’s point here?  That when a girl who spouts out support of Al Qaeda is admonished by her peers that this is the height of intolerance?  That’s the essence, I think, of what the film is attempting to say, which leads to would-be moving scenes of her persecution and later FBI involvement in her life.


I loathed this section of the film.  Just consider its incontrovertible stupidity:  If you were a fairly bright, intelligent, and well spoken girl that was an illegal immigrant, would you go out of your way to give a speech in a classroom that essentially proclaimed your support of the motives of the 9/11 terrorists, especially considering the paranoid post-9/11 world we live in?  Did this girl not think that saying what she did in a semi-public forum would not lead to her being suspected as a potential terrorist threat by the FBI, which would in turn lead to their discovery that she is an illegal immigrant?  I never once believed that this character – in any normal plane of reality – would have acted so naively.  What’s really disturbing is that Kramer wants us to sympathize with this character and feel for her predicament, but my willingness to have any sense of compassion for a person that tries to justify the unpardonable actions of the 9/11 terrorists is nil.  This girl comes off as far too creepy, especially considering the type of reaction Kramer was trying to elicit.  It’s very unsettling how the film paints her as a victim.  How can I pity someone that tries to "understand" the senselessness of murdering thousands of people? 


There are two other key scenes that are also unadulterated howlers.   The first involves a gun standoff between a drunken Cliff Curtis and another of the film’s key illegal immigrants in a convenience store.  A multiple murder has already ensured, involving the store’s owner, and what we are left with is Curtis facing off with the final assailant that is holding his gun to the head of the owner’s apparent wife, who also may or may not be an illegal immigrant.  What transpired next is one of the most wickedly implausible resolutions to a standoff that I have ever seen in a film; it was so systematically infuriating to see characters played by good actors that make decisions that can only be described as stupefying and insane.  Finally – and without given too much away - Ford confronts one particular character late in the film in a final confrontation that is played out at an immigrant swearing-in ceremony that is juxtaposed against the backdrop of the Star Spangled Banner being sung.  Few films have pummeled their messages home to viewers as CROSSING OVER did during this sequence: it made me want to slap my head in condescending disbelief.


What’s really depressing is that the film does contain some decent performances that I think get utterly overshadowed by the overwrought and misdirected execution of its themes.  Standouts include Cliff Curtis, who brings such a calm-spoken intensity to his troubled immigration officer (he's believably intense, even in that unpardonably bogus standoff scene).  Jim Sturgess, who gave such grounded and believable performances in films as divergent as 21 and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, is equally refined in his tricky role of the non-believing Jew that wants everyone to think he is a believer.  Ray Liotta gives a surprising low-key performance playing a repugnant role, which is surprising seeing as he has, in the past, gone for all-out over-the-top theatrics as salivating villains.  Last, but not least, we have Harrison Ford, who brings his characteristic underplayed bravado and charisma to his role of Max, who behaves in a largely altruistic fashion, perhaps more that a healthy immigration officer would.  Ford is dependably solid, but his casting is ironically unbelievable: pushing 70, it’s becoming harder and harder to believe Ford inhabiting roles that should be reserved for actors 20 years younger.  I mean, really, does the US have near-elderly immigration agents working the field?  Doubtful.


CROSSING OVER, at face value, is a film the deals with thorny and highly problematic socio-cultural issues with no easy solutions.  That’s noble in itself, but Kramer rarely underscores precisely what his motives are: they are unavoidably murky and ill defined, even when he beats certain issues like a dead horse and hammers them home to viewers to the point of ad nauseam.  His love-child of TRAFFIC and CRASH has a fractured narrative that becomes too insipidly convenient for its own good; they also take an awfully long time to generate momentum and flow and the disparaging vignettes, when they do intersect, never do so plausibly.   Lamentably, Kramer's handling of the various subplots strain believability to unyielding levels – I simply found it next-to-impossible to develop any sort of an emotional connection to the material and characters.  CROSSING OVER creates a perplexing disconnect while watching it: it never passionately moves viewers like it should, shakes up viewers like it should, not does it propel viewers to ask serious questions about its subject matter like it should.  To its decisive detriment, it takes significant and polarizing real-world dilemmas and unreservedly marginalizes them with a laughably overwrought and clumsy screenplay.  Themes as important as the ones in CROSSING OVER deserve better treatment it gives them.  


That, and its fine actors and assured writer/director positively deserve better as well.

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