In a departure from his usual sleazebag roles, Michael Douglas plays a scumbag in Joel Schumacher’s hit comedy about racist violence and cot death.
As with many 80s/90s films, a major studio wouldn’t make Falling Down now – and that is probably for the best. It follows racist white man Bill (Douglas) on a killing spree through LA, and the one-day-from-retirement cop (Robert Duvall) on his tail. What separates this 1993 offering from similar action-comedies (eg. 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance) is that the protagonist is actually the villain, a challenging conceit that proves beyond the capabilities of the Batman & Robin director.
Like Taxi Driver as directed by Scott Adams, it starts with a motorist railing against the sickness of society – the twist being that it is Bill who is sick and society is basically fine. Or they’re both sick, in which case Bill was right. This dichotomy renders the movie either toothless or racist, and if there is some middle ground Schumacher never really finds it. In any case it only works as a twist if you sympathise with Bill in the first place, and if the last few years have taught us anything it is that plenty of people do. Meanwhile viewers who don’t relate to Bill’s brand of white rage will find themselves wondering why they are watching Dilbert go postal.
Presenting the film from Bill’s point of view presents further complications, the worst being the racist stereotypes who populate his warped image of Los Angeles. After each violent episode the movie takes us out of his viewpoint to follow Duvall’s character, adding to the overall confusion. Bill’s perspective also makes Falling Down seem quite an angry film, but like Bill it doesn’t know where to direct that anger. Made during the Rodney King riots, it should probably be angry towards the LAPD (the movie’s heroes) rather than indulge racist fantasies about multiculturalism. Despite the copycat smashed-glasses poster, the picture is more straw man than Straw Dogs.
Unusually provocative for a major release and uncommonly well-acted for an exploitation flick, Falling Down collapses under the weight of its contradictions, confusions and misplaced sense of cleverness. The outcome is messy, baggy and about as deep as Undercover Nerd.