Falling Down

(Dir. Joel Schumacher 1993)

This is a film that could have been so good, but wasn't brave enough.

Michael Douglas plays a man who snaps. He finds himself in a horrible world he doesn't understand, and one hot day is caught in a traffic jam, and decides that he's had enough, and that he will not stand for any more of it. He leaves his car and walks across Los Angeles, and makes a stand against the world in a series of encounters with crooks, liars, idiots, charlatans, bullies, snobs, and other modern people who just don't seem to care about morality.

In his wanderings, he ends up becoming armed and dangerous, and the film builds in the audience an expectation of his perhaps achieving something worthwhile, or making a statement that will be heard by the masses. The film is a great potential wish-fulfilment movie, in which our hero does loads of the sort of things that we'd all love to do, like thwart bullies, punish the greedy, and rail against modern stupidity.

Unfortunately, the film loses its way. If you don't want to know what happens, read no further.

The film was marketed as a vehicle for Michael Douglas. In fact, it is a two-hander, and Robert Duvall plays an experienced policeman on the day of his retirement, who is precisely the sort of honest and sensible fellow that Michael Douglas's character would like, and who is the one cop who works out what is going on, while the younger men in his precinct show themselves to be selfish, arrogant, and uncaring. Duvall plays his parts very well, and there is a good sub-plot about his anxious wife, but this distracts from the main thrust of the movie, and turns it from the universal and urgent, to the personal and sentimental. Duvall is on screen for about the same amount of time as Douglas, but his half of the film never promises to be powerful.

The film nose-dives in a stupid scene in an army-surplus shop. The producers of the film presumably required this scene to be written in, in order to prove that the point of the film was not racist or fascist. Running the shop is a ludicrous goon with an enthusiasm for all things Nazi, and this character is offered up as an example of someone that Douglas is not. To ram the point home, Douglas ends up killing him. This is question that didn't need answering. That this scene was included shows that the film makers were afraid of their own message.

Things get worse. We later discover that Michael Douglas's character is mad. As soon as we learn this, the relevance if everything he does is diminished. His acts also become madder. When a man rudely complains that he is hogging a public payphone, Douglas gleefully shoots the 'phone to bits with a submachine gun. With such acts, the character loses our sympathy, and so the film tries to keep our sympathy with new methods. We are now required to feel sorry for him.

It turns out that he is divorced and has lost his job. He misses his daughter terribly, and is forbidden to see her. He lives in a dismal house with his feeble mother, and has been pretending to go to work for months. This is a tremendous disappointment. The film promised to unleash in us tremendous emotions of elation, hope, triumph, defeat, and instead replaces them with pathos. This character that could have been an inspiration to thousands instead ends up as just another lonely nutter. Of course something had to go wrong. a character cannot be shown to rampage across a modern city without some ill-effects. To remain seated in reality, the film probably had to have him defeated eventually, but not before he had made big public statement. Ordinary people tend not to snap, tend not to rampage, and tend to put up with the measly behaviour of people of modern people who don't care about their fellow citizens; and so ordinary people - the cinema-goers - would have loved to see a man fight their cause, risking what they dared not risk.

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