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Michael Douglas is enjoying an AFI accolade this year, for the many films he's acted in and produced. Definitely not on the credit side of his balance sheet is Falling Down, an almost completely indefensible social protest picture from 1992. The movie is about a laid-off defense industry engineer who cracks up one day and walks from East L.A. all the way to the beach, carrying a bag of weapons taken from some gang members. Much like Burt Lancaster's alienated everyman in the 1968 The Swimmer, the engineer's odyssey across Los Angeles yields a cross-section of a society in crisis.
I list Falling Down as a "Grand Canyon" movie, a picture that appears to be made by well-off film industry types that take the paranoid image of crime and chaos promoted by the local news channels as the truth of life in L.A.. 1991's Grand Canyon is a liberal guilt picture that assumes that anyone caught after dark outside of a safe upperclass enclave will be victimized by minority savages. The ultimate "Grand Canyon" movie is the Oscar winner Crash, a picture that assumes that the racial, ethnic and economic factions in Los Angeles are at each other's throats.
In Falling Down, Michael Douglas plays a mentally unbalanced man known as D-FENS, after his personalized licence plate. In an opening scene modeled on the beginning of Fellini's Otto e mezzo, D-FENS gets fed up with a traffic jam, abandons his car on the freeway and sets out on foot, heading home. Unfortunately, home means the beach bungalow of his ex-wife (Barbara Hershey) who has a restraining order keeping him from seeing his little girl.
D-FENS has a hostile encounter with literally everyone he meets. A rude, unsympathetic Korean convenience clerk refuses to make change for a phone call, so D-FENS smashes up his store while lecturing him on basic civility. Mexican-American gangbangers try to rob him, and then commit a bloody drive-by killing that wounds or kills several innocent bystanders. The unhappy D-FENS is definitely off his rocker, yet Falling Down encourages us to side with his point of view -- an insular, self-centered, white collar whitebread point of view that constantly whines, "This is supposed to be MY country and MY job and MY wife and MY world, and those bastards have taken it away from me".
The makers of the film are quick to say that they aren't making D-FENS into a hero, that he's very much "The Bad Guy" referenced in the last scene. That argument is pretty much beside the point, as D-FENS vocalizes all the petty grudges of resentful conservatives. All of Falling Down is rigged to encourage a negative attitude toward people (and especially minorities) that D-FENS, whether he admits it or not, blames for the rotten state of affairs. D-FENS meets not one reasonable person in his entire trek. An obnoxious panhandler gives him grief, as does a man upset that he's monopolized a pay phone. In their search for easy targets, the filmmakers invent a neo-Nazi Army Surplus store dealer (Frederic Forrest) to make sure that D-FENS looks rational by comparison.
Falling Down has no insights into white middle-class resentment. We're encouraged to root for D-FENS when he apes Dirty Harry, tormenting (and shooting) one of his injured attackers. The movie also revels in the infantile fun of seeing D-FENS fire a war surplus rocket, and blowing up a construction site. Falling Down is totally out of line when it scores points off of societal underdogs like fast food workers, who seem to take pleasure in tormenting our crybaby protagonist. D-FENS is abused by road workers and elbowed out of line when he tries to board a bus. In retrospect, perhaps the filmmakers were trying to stylize all of these ordinary citizens from D-FENS' warped point of view. If so, it doesn't work. The level of sophistication on view is to cut to a close-up of little American flags spilling on the floor when D-FENS busts up the Korean convenience store. The only message we get is that everything's rotten. Our lonely hero threatens innocent people with machine guns.
Robert Duvall plays Predergast, a detective on his last day before retirement who (surprise) must put up with the same kind of demeaning crud that makes D-FENS crack up. Prendergast's police buddies are mostly jerks, starting with his insufferable boss. Prendergast does his best to prop up his nagging, emotionally fragile wife (Tuesday Weld). A good measure of Falling Down's pandering to the cheap seats is the way Prendergast is allowed to resolve all three of his problems. He busts a fellow cop in the nose, tells his boss to "F" himself on the local news and puts his wife firmly in her place -- all she needed was some Alpha Male discipline. There's no enlightenment here at all.
Director Joel Schumacher keeps Falling Down moving at a good pace and the film makes fine use of L.A. locations, even if D-FENS seems able to hike across town far too quickly. But that's nothing, as Prendergast and his Detective partner Torres (Rachel Ticotin) zip from downtown to Venice in about 60 seconds flat. That's awful good time for a movie that blames impenetrable city traffic for everything.
All of the acting is good, even if a pro like Duvall seems to be stretching to give his character some interest. Michael Douglas does his best to be a nerdy icon, scowling through a broken pair of glasses, but he still comes off as an ill-conceived Spartacus. Tuesday Weld may be too good as the detective's nerve-shot housewife; it's the kind of great performance that is so real, it makes audiences uncomfortable. Of special note is the wonderful Lois Smith, playing D-FENS' addled mother. Ms. Smith can be seen forty years earlier in a brief but memorable role in the original East of Eden.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Falling Down looks great, presenting the 16 year-old picture in a flawless transfer. The extras position Schumacher's movie as a meaningful experience, starting with the director's commentary. Michael Douglas and others discuss the film's significance in a making-of featurette. The book-like disc holder contains an essay comparing the film to Dirty Harry and Network. Falling Down is a much simpler fantasy about a guy acting out his hostilities. It belongs in the category of pictures that solve all problems by shooting guns and blowing things up.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Falling Down Blu-ray rates:
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