Falling Down
Warner Bros. // R // $34.99 // May 26, 2009
Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 25, 2009
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Graphical Version
It isn't
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some sweeping tragedy that sends him careening over the edge -- a wife cruelly gunned down before his eyes, watching his daughter die a lingering, painful death because he couldn't foot the bill for any sort of competent medical care...no, nothing like that. It's the little aggravations in life: gridlock traffic, overpriced convenience stores, a mashed, tasteless looking fast food burger, grating loudmouths on the sidewalk and on the street, barely pubescent punks bullying around anyone in earshot, and the wealthy and privileged sneering down from above. They're the sorts of things that make most of us scowl but we put up with 'em anyway, even if in the back of our minds, we'd just as soon whip out a submachine gun and mow everyone down. That is what Falling Down is about. The cast and crew may drone on about the subtext of the decline of the middle class or the simmering mistrust in race relations in L.A., but at its core, Falling Down is a revenge fantasy...wish fulfillment, really. I mean, Michael Douglas' character is such a cipher that he's referred to more by his license plate than his afterthought of a birth name. He's hardly a hero, but anyone in the audience who says he can't relate -- that he hasn't mulled over pulling out a bazooka when roadwork snarls traffic back a half-mile or slugging some loudmouthed douchebag square in the face -- is just keeping his darker daydreams to himself.

He has a name, but let's just call him D-Fens: the license plate of the car he abandons on an onramp in a stretch of Los Angeles that's pretty far removed from the palm trees and impossibly gorgeous women that are usually caught on film. A busted A/C on a sweltering summer moring, traffic failing to so much as inch forward, a gaggle of sugar-addled kids beating their heads around in a schoolbus, self-entitled pricks honking their horns, a fly that keeps buzzing around his face over and over and over and over...he snaps. He quietly steps out of his car and walks into the bushes nearby.

Sergeant Prendergast (Robert Duvall), meanwhile, seems to be having an alright day. His stint in the L.A. police force has been kind of shaky recently -- an injury and a hysterical wife saddled him with a desk job working robbery -- but just the same, it's drawing to an end. He's retiring tomorrow, being dragged by his wife to Lake Havasu in the hopes of easing the sorrows they're leaving behind. Prendergast isn't so much the type to shrug off his last day on the force or take off early, though, and what an odd day it's turning out to be: one plagued with oddball stories about a guy in a white shirt and tie wreaking havoc from one end of L.A. to the other.

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not mindless destruction, though; D-Fens just wants to go home for his daughter's birthday, even if...well, home hasn't been home for a while now. As calm and rational as he tries to be, people just keep getting in the way. He wants to use a pay phone, but the guy running the convenience store next door won't break a bill unless he buys something. An eighty-five cent Coke, though...? Broken English, a bad attitude, and a baseball bat compel D-Fens to trash his store. He just wants to waltz through a park when some gangbangers hit up this harmless looking white schlub for a toll. He hits back and winds up with a hell of an artillery in the process. Falling Down charts D-Fens' descent for a couple hours straight, from whipping out a machine gun at a fast food joint that won't serve breakfast three minutes after the menu's rolled over to letting a garishly-dressed golfer who barks at him keel over to...yeah, I already mentioned the bazooka when some unnecessary construction yet again spirals into gridlock.

D-Fens isn't exactly painted as some kind of urban hero. He's definitely xenophobic, and as the movie progresses, his phone calls to his ex-wife sound more and more deranged. He may say he just wants to fork a birthday present over to his daughter, but it becomes increasingly clear that there'll be a murder/suicide in the headlines the next morning. At the same time, though, D-Fens is kind of sympathetic. There's no malice behind any of this havoc he's wreaking; he's just a man pushed too far. He hasn't had any control over his life for quite some time now, and now he doesn't even have a firm grasp on his sanity. As cacklingly over-the-top as his reactions to these everyday aggravations are, they are reactions; he's calm, collected, and polite almost to a fault until he has to resort to pulling an Uzi out of the arsenal in that gym bag he's lugging around. These are frustrations everyone's endured and everyone can relate to, and the fact that he is such an ordinary looking guy -- that he barely even seems to register a name -- makes it that much easier for the audience to drop themselves in his shoes.

That revenge
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fantasy may be the hook for Falling Down, but there's a cleverly constructed story framing it as well. For one, there isn't some prolonged setup. Any other movie would've squandered an inordinate amount of time establishing who he is and why he's started to become unhinged, and then it'd follow him for scene after scene until he breaks. Falling Down, though, has D-Fens snap in its opening, and his backstory is gradually revealed throughout the nearly two hours that follow. The movie also makes D-Fens shoulder the responsibility. He's had it rough, but it never wags its finger at some tertiary character who's to blame for all of this. He, ultimately, is the cause for all of his problems. I also appreciate the fact that Falling Down doesn't settle into any of the usual cat-and-mouse clichés. D-Fens knows he's being pursued, but from his perspective, it's by "the police" in the general, faceless sense. He doesn't know who it is exactly who's on his tail, and there aren't any shootouts, rambling monologues, or car chases between D-Fens and Prendergast. Falling Down is sharply written and constructed enough to keep Prendergast's arc intriguing even though he's kept out of arm's reach of the man he's been chasing.

Of course, it's remarkable how relevant Falling Down remains more than fifteen years later. The cell phones may be slimmer and sleeker these days, but little else has changed. Especially in the current economic climate, the struggles and resentment between classes are every bit as pronounced now as they were then. It goes without saying that overpriced convenience stores, gridlock traffic, loudmouthed pricks, relentless panhandlers, and bad service at fast food joints are pretty timeless too. Director Joel Schumacher juggles the drama and dark comedy deftly enough, and even with as cacklingly over-the-top as its satire can get, Falling Down still convincingly sells its sense of tragedy as well. It isn't some treasured masterpiece or anything, no, but I get the impression that this is exactly the movie that Joel Schumacher set out to direct, and with a pretty sharp script and a solid cast in tow, Falling Down is a hell of a revenge fantasy and well worth a look on Blu-ray. Recommended.

I'm impressed by just how well Falling Down has turned out on Blu-ray. Clarity and detail are both considerably stronger than I expected, particularly the sense of texture it hammers out; for one, I felt as if I could count each and every fiber in the gray jacket that Robert Duvall's wearing the entire movie. Its palette is stylized but spot-on, opening with a golden tint reflecting its steamy summer setting and gradually shifting to something grayer and more overcast. The scope image is free of any noticeable wear, and if any filtering or noise reduction have been applied, it's modest enough to not result in any of the usual artifacts. Film grain is wholly unintrusive but doesn't show any signs of being digitally smeared away. The scene with D-Fens' "point of no return" speech is excessively soft, and I'd imagine even that dates back to the original photography. The image doesn't boast the sort of three-dimensional, almost tactile pop that gearheads usually fawn over either, but that's okay; I just don't think Falling Down is that kind of movie. I'll admit to going into Falling Down with very modest expectations -- fully expecting an indifferent shrug that it's good enough and nothing more -- but it turns out that this is quite a nice looking Blu-ray disc, and its rabid cult following ought to be impressed.

Falling Down is letterboxed -- and very faintly pillarboxed -- to preserve its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 on Blu-ray. This VC-1 encode fits comfortably on a single layer Blu-ray disc and is free of any visible signs of strain.

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Shrugging off the expected six-channel remix, Falling Down features instead a stereo Dolby TrueHD track, and it's a very strong effort as well. Some stretches of dialogue are marred by a slight flicker of distortion, and a faint hiss infrequently lurks in the background, but those are really the only gripes I can lob out. Clarity remains consistently impressive, particularly throughout the action: D-Fens trashing a convenience store, sprays of bullets shattering glass, and a violent car crash, just to rattle off a few. Imaging across the front mains is robust, and even without a discrete LFE channel in tow, the track is reinforced by a meaty low-end.

Falling Down defaults to its TrueHD audio, something I'm not used to seeing from Warner but hope becomes standard practice from here on out. Lossy stereo tracks are served up in English, French (traditional and Quebecois), Italian, Castillian, Spanish, and Portuguese. A sprawling selection of subtitle streams are also offered.

Michael Douglas is
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interviewed in "Deconstructing D-Fens" (10 min.; SD), noting how Falling Down was an unlikely studio production at the time and would have to be an independent film in the here and now, likening the overall plot to a classic Western, and describing how the movie better captures the diversity of Los Angeles than most. As its title suggests, Douglas also speaks at length about his approach to the character as well as offering his interpretation of the film's final moments. This is a reasonably comprehensive conversation, addressing many of the key talking points from the disc's audio commentary, but its spastic and borderline-obnoxious reliance on a couple hundred After Effects filters seem as if "Deconstructing D-Fens" is trying to be a demo reel for an editor somewhere.

The menus and packaging may only mention Michael Douglas and director Joel Schumacher as fielding the audio commentary for Falling Down, but it casts a considerably wider net than that. Also featured are writer Ebbe Roe Smith, editor Paul Hirsch, L.A. Times writer Shawn Hubler, and actors Michael Paul Chan, Frederic Forrest, and Vondie Curtis-Hall. Having been pieced together from at least eight different recording sessions, this really isn't a screen-specific commentary at all, the editing has a rather relaxed pace and is riddled with some fairly lengthy gaps, and some of the same comments are repeated by several speakers. This commentary is more intensely focused on the story and what D-Fens represents; there are hardly any technical notes at all. Among the highlights are how Falling Down is informed by the changing face of America and how Los Angeles in particular had become so upended in recent years, the inspiration behind the premise and how D-Fens was unconventionally constructed backwards, Michael Douglas' drive to play a character who actively drove the story rather than merely reacting, filming the ending of the movie on the first day of the shoot, and why the original version of the scene at a plastic surgeon's palatial home had to be so drastically re-envisioned. It's a passable commentary track but not an essential listen.

A standard definition trailer rounds out the extras.

I don't really follow how Falling Down would be lavished with the hardcover book treatment while an acknowledged classic like Cool Hand Luke wouldn't...other than giving Warner an excuse to jack up the sticker price another six bucks. The book includes a couple of essays, a page of trivia, a handful of biographies and filmographies, and a slew of production stills.

The Final Word
There's something cathartic about seeing Michael Douglas react to life's tedious aggravations with a baseball bat, a submachine gun, and a rocket launcher (!). Any studio nowadays would've shoehorned in a foxy twentysomething love interest and more of a cat-and-mouse chase between D-Fens and Sergeant Prendergast, but Falling Down's intense focus on a man we don't get to know at all until well into his descent makes for a film that, even more than fifteen years later, remains engrossing and unique. Though it's hardly the sort of classic that screams out for the hardcover book treatment and a bloated sticker price, it's still great to see Falling Down claw its way to Blu-ray, especially with as strong a presentation as this disc is packing. Recommended.

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