MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Crime Drama-Thriller / Stars: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Rachel Ticotin, Tuesday Weld/ Runtime: 113 minutes
Take the hottest day of the year, a traffic gridlock, cracked pavements, dirty streets, unwarranted hostility and a general feeling of being short changed. Then add the frustrations of having an estranged wife and child, an extremely jaded and unbalanced mindset, and the frustration of being obsolete with no marketable skills. Set them against the decadent back drop of 1990’s LA where if you are ‘Not economically viable,’ you are of no use, and if you were to combine them all into a movie the result would be Falling Down. Indeed while the tag line ‘The Adventures of an Ordinary Man at War with the Everyday World,’ makes Joel Schumacher’s terrific and engaging masterpiece sound like the benign story of a working stiff with issues, Falling Down is much more than that and is more along the lines of a dark and engrossing urban fable, a study into the mind of the disenfranchised, and ultimately a potent and powerful reminder to all of us that the removal of comfort is a lot closer than we care or even want for that matter to believe.
The plot is as follows: A now unemployed defense worker finds himself trapped on a hot summer day in bumper-to-bumper Los Angeles traffic, and having been pushed almost past the brink of sanity, the guy loses it and storms out of his car, walking around town and trying desperately to see his little daughter for her birthday, a daughter who, we later find out, is untouchable because of a court order against him by his estranged wife. Along the way, the man will run across several distinct character types: the ‘war veteran’ bum who is really just a lowlife looking to score some quick cash, an irate Korean grocery store owner, a homophobic neo-Nazi army retail store owner, a crusty elitist country club golf player, super friendly fast food workers and their annoying managers, young Hispanic thugs, and so forth with each one aiding in the chipping away at what remains of his patience and tolerance for stupidity, thus only adding to the fuel of his rampage. As this is all going on, a veteran cop who is on his last day on the job, begins to put together the pieces of this mysterious crime spree plaguing the city and soon the two find themselves heading towards an inevitable confrontation between each other.
Now Michael Douglas, playing the defense worker gone wacko, plays an incredibly complex character. On the one hand, you know much of what he does is wrong, but at the same time there’s immense satisfaction at seeing him lash out at those deserving of it, and while he tries to stay calm, he finds himself constantly provoked by those who have ‘wronged society.’ In fact, many of the things he does could so easily have been avoided if the ‘victims’ were not so positively despicable and you can’t help but feel at the end of the day, when Foster gets his due, that he’s, in some small way, made Los Angeles a better place despite the carnage and mayhem he’s unleashed. Also giving us an equally brilliant turn, though to be fair I wouldn’t expect anything less from him, is Robert Duvall as the police desk jockey on his final day, and who, upon stumbling onto this crime wave, becomes determined to stop anyone else from being hurt, including the perp, but along the way must contend with his own set of baggage.
Yet perhaps what is so strange about the movie is there seems to be no clear message of who was right and who was wrong? It becomes a very blurry line over the approximately 2 hours of the movie’s run. I’ve seen it now several times and I still can’t give any definitive answer. Perhaps this is a strength that different people will view this movie in different ways. Some will see this as the story of a noble, decent man who modern society has beaten down and crushed, and who desperately tries to struggle against the tyranny and betrayal. Others will see Foster as a lunatic who needed to be put down. No one, I think however will find that Foster doesn’t warrant at least some sympathy.
Also despite being full of clichés, like the cop on his last day before retiring, Falling Down bravely meets all expectations of stereotypes, rather than challenging them, thus making for a realistic reflection of a failing society. Here, a man in extremis, without the feral cunning or killer instinct required for a life in the street, makes his way on anger and luck alone, somehow surviving to leave a paper trail of violence and destruction behind. At the same time, this is also a movie that relies heavily on symbolism, which helps it illustrate a flip side of America running parallel to the hunky dory world occupied by the successful with the overall message of ‘No Matter, Never Mind,’ proving clear in this world where children play next to vagrants dying from AIDS and Asian grocers can legally steal from the public with their overpriced goods, and while there is, of course, a small amount of Hollywood sentimentality thrown in for good measure, the dynamics of such a strong and engaging narrative plus 2 terrific performances by the leads make this completely forgivable and it’s possible to overlook this as a flaw given the film’s overall strengths.
On the whole and all in all though, Falling Down is a powerful and dramatic indictment of American culture, and societal chaos and upheaval, in that crazy time and place known as 1990’s Los Angeles. Indeed while this film is most definitely and assuredly not for everyone, and will most certainly offend some, I can assure you that this film, if approached with an open mind, will most certainly provide plenty of fuel for thought upon viewing it. On a scale of 1-5 I give Falling Down a 3.5 out of 5.