Essentially, the movie picks up where Howard Beale, the deranged anchorman in "Network" -- another less than great milestone movie -- left off. And if things were bad in 1976 when Beale urged viewers to join him in proclaiming "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore," the intervening years have only made matters worse.
As a description of our collective recession-era funk, "Falling Down" is to the early '90s what "Network" was to the late '70s. Written by Ebbe Roe Smith, the movie appraises the state of our national disease in a manner that goes far beyond what economic indicators tell us. If the last election was about change, the soul sickness shown in "Falling Down" reflects precisely why that change was essential. It's the grim chart at the end of our hospital beds.
For that reason, very little of what its protagonist endures seems unfamiliar. With his shipshape crew cut, his white short sleeve dress shirt with the skinny tie and the white plastic pocket protector bulging with ballpoints, D-FENS (played with serviceable action-hero intensity by Michael Douglas) is an Everyman figure so average that he's known only by the name on his license plate. He's almost literally a nobody. And yet, everybody knows how it feels to be stuck in traffic in your crummy little car on a sticky-hot gray pavement day with the horns blaring and the radios blasting and the kids in the school bus above you screeching. Or what it's like trying to find a public telephone that works or a real hamburger that looks like the plump, luscious, juicy hamburgers you've seen in the ads.
This guy is you, the movie suggests, and if not you exactly, then maybe the guy you're one or two bad breaks from becoming. At one time or another, we've all thought these thoughts, and so when this downtrodden, laid-off, teed-off L.A. defense worker gets out of his car on a sweltering day in the middle of rush hour and decides he's not going to take any more, it comes as no surprise.
"Where do you think you're going?" the driver behind him asks.
"I'm going home," the man answers, disappearing with his briefcase into the bushes alongside the highway.
And that's all he wants to do -- to go home. Beyond that, he just wants everybody else to get out of his way.
The thing is, though, nobody gives a damn what he wants.
If the movie had ended right here, or if Schumacher ("Flatliners," "Lost Boys") had done more thinking and less ranting, it might have retained some of the integrity of this semi-timely premise. Certainly we'd have been spared the severe concussions of Schumacher's pile-driver style. Unfortunately, it continues on through an uninspired series of cartoonishly brutal social insults, each one growing more lethal than the next, thereby justifying an increasingly lethal response.
In this middle section of the film, as D-FENS marches across L.A., beating up on rich golfers and poor gangsters alike, the movie begins to play like "Death Wish: The Series." First, he terrorizes a Korean grocer and smashes up his merchandise with a baseball bat, all because the merchant wouldn't give him change for a dollar so he could use the phone. Later, he picks up a knife and then a bag of guns from some punks who crack up their car in a failed drive-by shooting. By the time he's finished giving a civics lessons to the crypto-Nazi owner of a military surplus store (Frederic Forrest), he's turned himself into a kind of nerd Schwarzenegger, complete with black combat fatigues and rocket launcher.
This is how Schumacher would like us to see D-FENS at this stage in the story -- as the vigilante superhero of our common frustrations. We're meant to feel a cheap cathartic kick every time Douglas's bafflingly well-conditioned Bernie Goetz clone gets a little back for all the times we've had a rude cab driver or convenience store cashier. But stitched in between these incidents is a contradictory series of scenes between D-FENS and his panicky-looking estranged wife, Beth (Barbara Hershey), who won't even allow him to come to the house to bring his little girl a present for her birthday.
This is the home at the end of his long-day's march, and even that has been taken away from him. But while these scenes on the phone with Hershey are meant to add complexity to the situation by creating doubts about the protagonist's past, they're too vague to supply anything other than another layer of garbled cues to the audience. And the same goes for the superfluous (though remarkably well-acted) scenes with Robert Duvall as Prendergast, a desk cop who decides to bring D-FENS in on the very last day before his retirement.
Prendergast's real function in the story isn't complicated at all, though. From his first scene on, he's a happy ending waiting to happen. It's a nifty little switcheroo the filmmakers pull in the movie's final act. First, they turn their Everyman into an avenging angel, then point a condemning finger at us for rooting for him.
It also turns out that D-FENS isn't as much of an Everyman as he was first made out to be. It seems that he had a history of violent behavior, and so instead of being a movie about an average guy who snaps, "Falling Down" is about a nut case pretending to be an average guy who snaps.
That no one seems to have noticed the difference between these two states of mind is the movie's gravest problem. And there are others. Visually, Andrzej Bartkowiak's images are so firecracker jittery that they barely register as anything other than a punch in the eye.
It's a kind of backwards compliment to say that Douglas does a fairly watchable job of big-star acting here, but his challenge was to play the character straight down the middle, and he meets this challenge so skillfully that the filmmakers almost get away with their moral fudging. As he did in "Fatal Attraction" and "Wall Street," Douglas again takes on the symbolic mantle of the Zeitgeist. But in "Falling Down," he and Schumacher want to have their cake and eat it too; they want him to be a hero and a villain, and it just won't work.
Also, this time out, Douglas finds himself a little behind the cultural curve. His character's lawlessness is founded on a combination of desperation and powerlessness. And while the forces of despair are still at work, that dead-end feeling of utter hopelessness appears, at least for the present, to have eased. While Douglas's Everyman is falling down, the country is getting up.
"Falling Down" is rated R, for violence and language.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company