old school review: FALLING DOWN (1993)

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MICHAEL DOUGLAS stars as a vigilante / activist in the hidden gem FALLING DOWN, a cult classic poisoned with black humour.

It’s a violent film with a complicated message and acidic comedy deconstructing American lifestyle post-Reagan. FALLING DOWN is like a 1990s Los Angeles set version of DANTE’S INFERNO. Douglas portrays our poor Virgil surrounded by sinners in a Rat Race land boiling with crime and poverty.

This complex character is fed up with society. He think’s he’s “just standing up for (his) rights.” He doesn’t like what America looks like in the early 90s. This twisted and broken pacifist desires a return to the 1950s way of life. He thinks our ideals are twisted, where a defense contractor or a teacher barely makes a living, while a plastic surgeon gets a giant salary and all the rewards.

the opening shot… BIRDMAN style

JOEL SCHUMACHER directs Douglas in this unusual action film. BATMAN FOREVER haters have no fear, this Schumacher was a different beast, coming off of genre hits like THE LOST BOYS and FLATLINERS.

This pseduo-revenge film opens with an extreme close-up of Douglas, sweating in a dead still traffic jam. You can sense the character’s isolation due to Shumacher’s impressive staging. The camera continues to pull out, wider and wider, roaming like it was possessed by ROBERT ALTMAN. The further the camera moves out, the more noises invade us with a crazy cacophony of anxious sounds.

Before long, Douglas abandons his car (license plate reading: D-FENS) despite pleas from a honking driver. It’s not like traffic was moving. When asked what he’s doing, Douglas simply replies, “I’m going home” – his anthem.

He echoes this later, shocked to learn how his actions are perceived, “I’m not a vigilante… I’m just trying to get home and see my little girl.”

The movie spirals downward as Douglas encounters the society he despises on his long walk home to an estranged wife and a young daughter. It’s her birthday, and Douglas will bring her a gift, despite the restraining order.

During this early stage of his journey, we aren’t sure if this guy has gone insane, or if we should root for him. He has some interesting political ideas, but his ethics are worrisome.

At his scariest (late in the film), Douglas terrorizes us with this delicious threat, talking of how astronauts might encounter a problem “out of contact” on the other side of the Moon – what’s Douglas refers to as “the point of no return.”

This is how the man views himself. Creepy as Hell. He’s ruthless and unstoppable. He’s on a mission, and he’s going to see it through.

The more interesting elements are what compels this man to action. His twisted motives are somehow intriguing and elusive enough to fuel the entire movie. 

There are many Easter Egg type references paralleling the actions on film… As you can see here, Douglas is at a metaphorical crossroads, symbolized in the background.

The first obstacle he encounters seems harmless – getting change for a phone call. (This is the 90s, remember). He enters a convenience store and asks the Korean owner to break a dollar. He’s told to buy something first. He won’t have a quarter for that phone-call home.

So, Douglas’ character (actually credited as D-FENS) unleashes all his pent-up aggression. He busts up the store, angered by how society has changed; English-as-a-Second-Language store owners and inflated prices being just the tip of the iceberg.

The best D-Fens is a good offense, right. Well, Douglas’ deranged character takes this a step further. By the end of the film, he will upgrade from a baseball bat, a butterfly-knife, a machine gun, to a bazooka. No joke.

His path is riddled with obstacles, but each time he gets a 90s Action Flick Loot Drop. 

I won’t spoil all the events along the way, in case you decide to seek out this hidden gem.

Douglas’ story is paralleled with a retiring police officer played by ROBERT DUVALL. They both lost their daughters while they were young, and are now experiencing anxiety over career change.

Both of them also, ironically, happened to be stuck in that same traffic jam from the opening scene. There are several other parallels that might spoil the movie if I mention them here. NERD ALERT 2000: Keep yours ears peeled for London Bridges. Another eerie mirror / parallel between hero and villain.

See, Duvall works in the robbery division and learns of D-Fens when the Korean store owner reports the attack. For the rest of the movie, Duvall and his partner will be a step behind… until they aren’t.

By the emotionally complex finale, Douglas has traversed quite the character arc, also reflected in his costume – from the shirt and tie, to military fatigues. This man with the shattered glasses is even referred to as GI JOE – the All-American hero – who solves problems with violence, through war.

It’s also ironic, since D-Fens believes he’s defending the Founding Fathers‘ vision of America.

The 90s had a few controversial thrillers that commented on society and the state of action films. I feel like FALLING DOWN is one of them. Not only do we get an action flick with a complicated message, and complicated humour, but we also get Michael Douglas portraying a complicated tragic figure. 

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