I was rolling my catalog case along and caught the edge of the elevator door and tripped, but didn’t fall down. Then it hit me, “eureka! Our next review at JPFmovies will be a look at “Falling Down” (1993), starring Michael Douglas and Robert Duval.” An interesting film that has some moments of outrageously dark comedy and has some pretty cold, downright psychopathic behavior. My guess is that while Douglas traverses Los Angeles to “go home” for his daughter’s birthday party, virtually everyone can identify with at least one of the situations he encounters along the way. For us here at JPFmovies, it was the fast food restaurant scene (see clip below).
The film stars Michael Douglas in the lead role of William Foster (credited as “D-Fens”) the moniker appearing on his car’s license plate. He is a frustrated, divorced and unemployed former defense engineer. The film follows Foster as he goes on a violent trek across the city of Los Angeles, to reach the house of his estranged ex-wife in time for his daughter’s birthday party. Along the way, he ends up in a number of situations, ranging from the trivial to the significant, provocative encounters that cause him to (over)react with violence and make sardonic observations on life, poverty, the economy, and commercialism. Robert Duvall is an aging, often cowardly LAPD Sergeant on his last day before he retires, facing frustration with socially-accepted spinelessness, even while tracking down Foster.
The spark that lights this fire ignites when Foster’s air conditioning fails in his shitty car while he is in a serious traffic jam. Out of pure exasperation, he simply abandons his car and begins making his way across Los Angeles to attend the birthday party as an uninvited guest.
The first encounter is at a convenience store, where the Korean owner refuses to give Foster change so he can make a telephone call—yes, that is right, at a payphone. Foster has a heated discussion about the store’s ridiculously high prices. The Korean goes for his baseball bat and demands Foster leave. Foster wrestles the bat away from the shopkeeper and destroys much of the merchandise until the Korean brings his prices back to 1965 levels before leaving—then he pays for a coke and leaves. In a vacant lot across the street, Foster is accosted by two gang members who threaten him with a knife and demand his briefcase as a toll before allowing him to leave. Foster gives them a good beating and takes their knife and continues on his journey.
Naturally, having their “honor” challenged, the two gang members attempt a drive by shooting and find Foster in a phone booth. They open fire, taking out several bystanders but Foster walks away without a scratch. After the driver loses control of the car and crashes, Foster goes to survey the damage, finds a gun and shoots the one surviving gang member. He finds the gangs gym bag full of weapons and walks away with his new found supplies. After that encounter Foster gives his briefcase to an overly persistent panhandler he meets – but it turns out all the briefcase contains is a sandwich and an apple.
Feeling a little hungry, Foster rolls into a fast food restaurant and attempts to order breakfast, but they have switched to the lunch menu. After informing the manager that the customer is always right, Foster pulls a gun and accidentally fires into the ceiling. Trying to reassure the frightened employees and customers, Foster orders lunch, but points out that his burger looks nothing like the one shown on the menu.
Foster passes a bank where a black man is holding a sign stating “not economically viable,” protesting being rejected for a loan application. The man exchanges a glance with Foster, who then asks him to “remember me” as he is escorted away by police. Looking for a new pair of shoes (we see that Foster is stuffing his shoes with newspaper), Foster stops at an Army-Navy surplus store. The owner is a white supremacist who chases away the police looking for Foster and when they have cleared out he offers Foster a rocket launcher, and congratulates him for shooting “a bunch of niggers” at the Whammy Burger. When Foster denounces the overt racism the fool pulls a gun, but Foster shoots, stabs and kills him. He changes into army fatigues and boots, takes the rocket launcher, and leaves.
In what is probably the second funniest scene, Foster stumbles across a road repair crew, working about as hard as teamsters usually do—not doing much–and accuses them of doing make work to justify their budgets. He pulls out the rocket launcher, but struggles to use it, until a young boy (who thinks Foster is part of a movie set) explains how it works. Foster accidentally fires the launcher which goes underground and destroys the construction site.
By the time Foster The film did ok at the box office, grossing $40.9 million domestically. It earned $18.1 million in theatrical rentals, falling short of its $25 million budget. Although, it was the number one weekend movie during its first two weeks of release (2/26-28, 3/5-7/93).
Reviews for the film were often positive. The movie holds a 73% “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 56 out of 100 (“mixed or average reviews”) on Metacritic.
What is fascinating about the Douglas character, as written and played, is the core of sadness in his soul. Yes, by the time we meet him, he has gone over the edge. But there is no exhilaration in his rampage, no release. He seems weary and confused, and in his actions he unconsciously follows scripts that he may have learned from the movies, or on the news, where other frustrated misfits vent their rage on innocent bystanders.
Many film critics claimed that the film glorifies law-breaking vigilantism—which is a total load of nonsense; the character is not the ‘hero’ or ‘newest urban icon,’ but a rogue and the victim at the same time. There are many elements of our society that contributed to his madness and one may even pity him. But the film never condones his actions.
The Korean American Coalition protested the film for its treatment of the Korean grocer. Warner Brothers Korea canceled the release of Falling Down in South Korea following boycott threats (chickens). Of course someone had to be offended. Somehow unemployed defense workers were also angered at their portrayal in the film. Falling Down at its core could be seen as the definitive study of the “angry white male”; the character of D-FENS was featured on magazine covers and reported upon as an embodiment of the stereotype.
Some compare Falling down to Boyz ‘N the Hood. It is a shrewd, nasty–at times wickedly funny–movie that probes nothing and challenges everybody. I will not be surprised if some people dismiss it as a variation of the Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood vigilante movies of the l970s. Indeed, the locale and the characters may be new, but the ideology is old and familiar.
Falling Down taps effectively into Americans’ worst collective fears and nightmares, and, considering that it’s well-made and well-acted, the movie might be even more alarming than intended, because it is good entertainment.