Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Falling Down (1993) - Michael Douglas Movies Aren't Usually Like This One

Michael Douglas In "Falling Down": At The Top Of His Game

Film Poster Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
Falling Down (1993).

There are films that are more like touchstones, a mirror into which you look and get back an answer about yourself that you weren't looking for. In the '70s, it was the film "Death Wish" with Charles Bronson, which had people standing and cheering during the film because it touched a nerve. Other films like "Network" ("I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any longer!") have the same effect. Placing the Michael Douglas movie "Falling Down" (1993) from Alcor Films in that sort of elite company is unfair, because "Falling Down" never achieved iconic status except among its cult-hit fans. However, "Falling Down" has the same goal as those films, which is to sort out the underlying anger that many feel at a society they think is spiralling away from them without any seeming control or purpose, seemingly changing at random without any regard for how change affects people or who it hurts. "Falling Down" is a meditation on society's sheer indifference and alienation.

Foster and gang members Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
Foster and the two gang members in "Falling Down."

Michael Douglas is William Foster (never actually named in the film), who is usually identified in this sort of review by his "D-Fens" license plate. Foster is coming home on the Freeway one day, stuck in traffic on a hot afternoon with a broken air conditioner, when his inner frustrations and impatience get the best of him. He abandons the car in the middle of traffic and begins a trek across Los Angeles to get to his daughter Adele's birthday party. "I'm going home," he yells to someone else stuck in the jam who wonders why he is abandoning his car (the fellow who yells happens to be "Falling Down's" screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith, incidentally). Home is near the coast, and it's a long walk. There's a fine point to what Foster actually is doing when he is driving home, but I'll leave that to you to find out when you watch the film.

Foster and crashed car Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
Foster showing that gang members are only tough when people don't fight back in "Falling Down.".

It turns out, though, that Foster really has hit his breaking point. At a convenience store, he tries get change to make a call, but the Korean proprietor refuses. Foster begins ranting about the high prices in the store ("You're charging 85 cents for a soda and I'm the criminal?" is the gist of it) and then grabs a baseball bat out of the frightened owner's hand and smashes the place up. When he leaves, two gang members mug him, but he disperses them with the baseball bat and takes one of their knives. This obviously is all fantasy stuff of the put-upon cubicle worker.

Foster holding a burger Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
"Why doesn't this look like the one in the picture?"

The gang members return with two others in a car, spotting Foster in a phone booth. They fire at him but hit bystanders, then crash. Foster walks over, grabs one of their guns, and shoots one of the thugs in the leg. Making a sardonic comment, he grabs a bag of weapons out of their vehicle and wanders off. As he leaves, he gives a panhandler his briefcase, which is revealed to contain the sandwich and apple that his mother gave him for lunch.

Foster holding soda can Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
Holding things up in his hands is kind of a trait of Foster in "Falling Down."

Foster gets hungry (should have kept the briefcase, buddy!) and heads for a fast food joint, "Whammy Burger." It's obvious what ubiquitous fast food chain this joint is standing in for, in line with the many other obvious references in "Falling Down." Foster orders breakfast and is told that they just switched to the lunch menu, so no more breakfast. Arguing about it with the extremely solicitous manager who just makes things worse because he obviously is being insincere, Foster pulls out a gun and it discharges into the ceiling. Foster then accepts a burger, but questions why it doesn't look like the ones in the advertisements. After leaving, he tries to call his ex-wife Beth from a pay-phone but then shoots it up when someone hassles him about the length of his call. Again, this is all fantasy stuff, of the "When someone hassles me I'm just gonna shoot the whole place up!" variety.

Foster pointing machine gun Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
Foster taking out his anger on some deserving punks in "Falling Down."

Meanwhile, the local police have been receiving reports of a string of weird crimes all across town that seem completely random. Sergeant Prendergast, watching the clock until he officially retires at the end of the day, pieces together that they are probably all being committed by one individual and sets out to investigate. Interviews with witnesses confirm his suspicions, and he is able to identify Foster from his D-FENS license plate. He and his partner (and love interest) Detective Torres visit Foster's mother, with whom Foster lives. The officers tell her that they found out that Foster lost his job months before, but never told anyone. The officers do learn from her that he is probably heading toward his ex-wife Beth's house near the beach in Venice.

Whammy Burger worker Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
One of the amusing scenes is when everybody starts to agree with Foster about the burgers in "Falling Down" - giving affirmation not to Foster per se, but to the people watching in the theater who know exactly what Foster is upset about from their own petty frustrations.

Foster continues his journey. He sees a black man dressed like him on the street near a bank, protesting not getting a loan, and they exchange knowing glances before the man says to "remember" him. The next stop is an army surplus store to buy some shoes, but Detective Torres comes in to ask the owner if has seen Foster. The owner prevents Torres from realizing that Foster is there, then, after she leaves, confides in Foster that he's proud of what he's doing and gives him a rocket launcher. The store owner, though, is a racist, and Foster kills him before changing into army fatigues.

Gang members Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
The gang member girl isn't too happy to be in a gunfight in "Falling Down."

Walking down a street under repair, Foster notices the crew not doing anything except fattening their paychecks. They are rude about it, so Foster pulls out the rocket launcher and blows the site up with the help of a young boy who explains how to use it. Foster continues on and runs across a family enjoying a nice day outside. He then has another incident at an exclusive country club, where Foster causes a golfer who is extremely rude to him and almost hits his head with a golf ball to have a heart attack.

Robert Duvall Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
Prendergast is a cliché but performed wonderfully by Robert Duvall in "Falling Down."

Finally arriving at Beth's house, Foster finds it empty and figures that she and Adele went to the nearby Venice Pier. Prendergast and Torres arrive, but Foster shoots Torres and continues on his way. At the pier, Foster finds Beth and his daughter. Prendergast runs up and he and Foster have a brief philosophical exchange before Foster's journey ends.

Foster examining rocket launcher Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
It's always nice to have a helpful kid around when you want to blow something up in "Falling Down."

"Falling Down" is composed of a series of disconnected vignettes, and the whole is less than the sum of the parts. That does not make "Falling Down" a bad film, it simply means that there is no overarching point that is being made. There really is no more to it than that a man snaps after having to take too much, and he goes to extreme lengths to do what he feels is necessary to get what he wants. That it all makes perfect sense to him doesn't mean it is right - it just means that there are different ways of looking at ordinary things that normal people must suppress. "Falling Down" is a meditation on the tight control and suppression of feelings that society requires of people to get along with others in the modern world.

Foster at Whammy Burger Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
"Everybody calm down, I'm not really a crazed killer. Never mind the semi-automatic I'm waving around."

So, with no "message" being conveyed (which is not a bad thing, message movies can be horrible), what is the point of "Falling Down"? The point is that there isn't a point, namely, it shows how dangerous any seemingly inoffensive individual can become under the proper circumstances when confronted by an endlessly indifferent society. It is a "release" film - just as Bronson in "Death Wish" acts as a way for the audience to release its frustrations at crime, "Falling Down" serves as an outlet for more petty frustrations - but also aiming at a much larger target, the increasing alienation of the modern world. Nobody really gives a damn about Foster's frustrations which are petty but still important to him, and by God he's going to do something about it for once. Foster reaches his limit after losing his job, losing his wife, and having to cope with big-city frustrations, but everybody has their breaking point.

Michael Douglas Barbara Hershey
Michael Douglas and Barbara Hershey at the premiere at Mann's Theater in Westwood, California of "Falling Down.".

That this remains a topical film should be obvious to anyone who notices the never-ending string of school shootings and similar mass-murder sprees that have been breaking out with increasing frequency in the years since "Falling Down." Back in those days, nobody thought twice about letting their children play outside, and it was considered an outrage that there should be metal detectors in schools. Today, the first thing you think about when the subject of schools come up is the latest shooting at one.

Barbara Hershey Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
Barbara Hershey is only in "Falling Down" for a few minutes. Her part probably was reduced in the cutting room, because her character is given very short shrift.

"Falling Down" has an outstanding cast, which helps give the film a sense of gravitas it may not completely deserve. Besides Douglas, who was riding high in 1993, Robert Duvall appears as Prendergast, Barbara Hershey has large billing but a tiny role as Foster's ex-wife Beth, Rachel Ticotin is Torres, Tuesday Weld plays Prendergast's neurotic wife, and Frederic Forrest is the crazed army surplus store owner. "Falling Down" has one of the best casts that could have been assembled at that time for a "small" film, and director Joel Schumacher was no slouch either.

Foster and Beth Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
Foster really does miss his ex-wife Beth in "Falling Down."

There is a mystery within the production of "Falling Down," and that is the identity of the screenwriter, one . Smith, incidentally, is the guy who yells at Foster as he leaves his car on the Freeway. The enigmatic Ebbe Roe Smith, a bit actor whose resume was full of roles like "Man at Table," apparently wrote only one more screenplay (the absolutely horrendous "Car 54, Where are You"), then disappeared from view. Recently, he has resumed playing bit roles, perhaps because the money from the screenplays finally ran out. One imagines him, typewritten screenplay in hand, hounding every big shot he runs across to fund his next project, and gradually losing patience, like Foster, when they ignore him....

Foster holding gun Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
Foster looks increasingly relaxed as "Falling Down" progresses.

"Falling Down" is a film that has similarities to a film done by Michael Douglas' father, Kirk Douglas. In "Lonely Are the Brave," Kirk plays Jack Burns, a loner who runs afoul of the law when he tries to help out a friend. For the remainder of that film, the police track Burns down as he simply tries to leave the area and be at peace. Kirk is on record as saying that "Falling Down" was son Michael Douglas' best piece of work, and Kirk apparently considers "Lonely Are the Brave" his own personal favorite. Comparing the two films, you can see why Kirk Douglas likes the two seemingly very different films. Both offer fine pieces of acting conveying similarly ambiguous themes about an individual's revolt against societal norms, highlighting the alienation of society and its crushing vengeance upon anyone who challenges it.

Foster aiming gun Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
Foster is all business with his weapons in "Falling Down."

Incidentally, this low-key crime drama is a gun buff's dream film. If you are observant, you will note the following weapons at one point or another, several of them fired in anger: Beretta 92FS; Taurus PT92; Colt MkIV Series 70; Smith & Wesson Model 19 Snub Nose; Smith & Wesson Model 15 .38 Special; Smith & Wesson Model 30; Intratec TEC-9 submachine gun converted (illegally) to auto; MAC 10 open bolt submachine gun; IMI Uzi; Sawed-off Remington 870; M72 LAW (missile launcher); Browning M1919A4; and an M60. Not to mention the purported Zyklon-B canister. That's a lot of weapons, more than in some war movies.

Foster, Beth, Adele Falling Down 1993 Michael Douglas
Foster gets his wish and finds his family in "Falling Down."

"Falling Down" is not a great film, but it is thought-provoking and full of memorable scenes that will stick with you. Very few people will profess to completely understand what "Falling Down" really is trying to say - if anything. It may be worth a look to see a role where Michael Douglas doesn't play a hero or a villain, but just some guy with nothing left to lose. "I'm the bad guy? How did that happen?" - that sort of sums up Foster's character. I don't want to overstate things and imply that "Falling Down" is some huge classic, but for what it is, it is a very enjoyable film. You may find that it becomes a sort of guilty pleasure.

Below is the trailer - which includes most of the good scenes from "Falling Down":


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