'Falling Down': long on hate and hypocrisy, hopelessly short on plot


"Falling Down" goes boom. And it goes bang.

This angry, self-congratulatory, self-important movie fancies itself a "Taxi Driver" for the '90s but it has such a clammy stench of hypocrisy that the taxi you'll cherish is the one that takes you home afterward. It's one of those jobs that disapproves of middle-class rage but can't help its grubby little self from exploiting the same. It doesn't mind if you purse your lips in disapproval or scream "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out," just as long as you pay for your ticket. In other words, it has the worst thing possible for a movie with a point of view: no point of view.

It begins on a hot day in a Los Angeles traffic jam where an unnamed middle-aged white guy (Michael Douglas) is melting faster than a chocolate soldier on a radiator. One look at the steely, empty eyes behind those rigid black frames and the flight-deck angularity of the crew-cut hair and you know this guy is ready to blow like Pinatubo. Basically that's it -- that's the movie.

We watch as this terrifying schlemiel degrades over a long day's trek from the traffic jam in east L.A. to the sea, indulging at each stop in a scenario of violence more grotesque than the last. Meanwhile, a "good" cop on his last day before retirement -- yes, that one again! -- tries to track him down before he turns into a one-man Wild Bunch.

As hackneyed as it is, that subplot, with Robert Duvall doing another of his quiet good guy roles, is really the best thing in the movie. Duvall, as long as he's not playing Josef Stalin, is always convincing, and the best thing in Ebbe Rose Smith's script is the way in which it etches in the particulars of Detective Pendergrast's less than brilliant life and tries not to make him special: The cop is one of those quiet men we take for granted, the sentry we ignore.

But most of the movie is Michael Douglas taking out his frustrations, mostly but not entirely, on people of another hue. I actually think filmmaker Joel Schumacher (normally a super-slick hustler of "The Lost Boys" and "St. Elmo's Fire" fame) had the beginnings of something really interesting here, but, of course, he backs off. Douglas' first two run-ins are with a Korean convenience store owner and a Hispanic street gang. They are undeniably racist in their tone, but that's not what's unsettling about them; what's unsettling is that they articulate what all too many white people feel but never dare express.

Schumacher loses his nerve so quickly that one suspects he never had much to begin with. At a certain point, the "enemies" in "Falling Down" become the familiar litany of officially proclaimed human exiles whom it is OK to disrespect, or even kill. The film is entirely too conscious of prolonging audience identification with the Douglas character; he never seems like a real psycho, terrifying in his randomness, but more like a programmed little robot. We feel as if we're in a zone beyond manipulation; we've been manhandled.

Thus, the victims are a gun-crazy neo-Nazi, an obdurate road crew, rich guys at a golf course, a rich doctor. Rich people -- hey, it's OK to hate them! They're not human! When Douglas shoots a sympathetic cop, Schumacher doesn't even have the guts to show it to us, because the baldness of the act would defuse the complex sympathy wiring in the climax, where the story's protagonists come together for the first and only time.

All too frequently the manipulations are so heavy-handed they turn the movie ludicrous. Obviously a key element in the collapse of urban culture is the proliferation of weapons, but neither the script nor Schumacher can figure out a convincing way to get Douglas armed to the teeth. Ultimately, they have him literally "find" a bunch of guns at the scene of an accident so artlessly staged it seems like a joke.

There's also one breach of taste that I find grotesque. At onpoint, to protest the cessation of breakfast hours at a fast-food joint, Douglas' mensch pulls a submachine gun and ventilates the roofline. The movie seems to think this is pretty amusing, but people with long memories will remember a massacre at a San Diego McDonald's so tragic it shouldn't be joked about. Schumacher obviously thinks it's one of those things so sad you can only laugh about it. But that's wrong: Even today, years later, you can only cry, and anything less is pathologically insensitive.

"Falling Down"

L Starring Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall and Barbara Hershey.

Directed by Joel Schumacher.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R.


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