by Tony Nigro
I don’t have a solid memory of the first time I saw Falling Down, the 1993 Michael Douglas vehicle about American white male frustration. I remember that the movie was still fairly new, that I watched it on a television (either via cable or videotape) and that it didn’t affect me much. The time was the early 1990s. Douglas was Hollywood’s Male Victim #1. Bill Clinton was a new President, I was in high school, and not too soon before there were riots in Los Angeles. My interest in the film probably didn’t go beyond the shoot-and-yell-at-people trend that came into vogue after Reservoir Dogs.
Fast forward to the present: I spend about half of the intervening years living in New York City. A terrorist attack occurs. The country’s tenor changes. Back in a Los Angeles hell bent on urban development, and with renewed interest in the city’s elusive soul, I figure, Hey, why not watch Falling Down again? It’s Los Angeles around the time of the riots. That’s interesting. Why the hell not?
Well, now I know. Because it’s lame.
As a movie, Falling Down is a footnote to the Movieland violence of the ’90s that led to Quentin Tarantino and all his basterd children. But it also uncomfortably teeters between 1980s genre corn and early 1990s superhip posturing. For all it’s sociopolitical pretensions, the movie has a vulgar ignorance of reality. It’s the kind of world where a gangbanger carries butterfly knife and a sad-sack cop about to retire has a name like Prendergast. I half expected (or hoped for) the baseball bat gang from The Warriors to show up and make it enjoyable. Any depth in the story is undermined by a sloppy camp: A kid can help Michael Douglas use a rocket launcher because he saw one on TV? That’s social commentary, right? Robert Duvall punches a fellow cop, who then falls onto his retirement cake?! Joel Schumacher’s strangling of the Batman franchise was never better foreshadowed.
As a cultural artifact, Falling Down is something quite different. It’s the result of the Gulf War, recession, and the 1992 riots, which happened during filming of the picture. That could make it prescient, but in a grander retrospect the movie is so typical of the “complacency” discussed so much after September 11. Douglas’s D-Fens character is pushed over the edge because of unemployment, being “not economically viable,” because his sprawling city is alienating and he has no place to fit between the rich and the poor. He’s outmoded, a throwback to the good old days of crew cuts and apple pie. Fine. But he chooses to take his aggression out on immigrants, fast food, street construction, and all forms of NIMBYism from the ghetto to the golf course. Cry me a river, White Man!
We know all along that D-Fens is the villain, and we’re strangely meant to sympathize with his discontent as much as we’re expected to condemn his actions. Yet not once does the film actually explore the causes of these frustrations or their possible solutions. It merely points them out, yells a bit and moves on, as ineffectual as its insane hero. I suppose that was a conscious decision meant to make the movie “edgy,” another relic of 1990s Hollywood.
Ultimately, the film is less about Los Angeles, as I’d hope it would be, and more about using Los Angeles as a prototype for Scary Urban America. Rather, Scary Urban America as it’s perceived from inside the safe confines of a car in rush hour traffic. L.A. aside, I would just prefer that if someone were to get out of the car and confront Scary Urban America, he or she would experience the real thing — and not some movie gangster with a plastic knife.