He’s made some good movies (The Lost Boys), some overrated movies (St. Elmo’s Fire), and some offensively shitty movies (Batman & Robin), most of which have made lots and lots of money — but it’s my contention that Joel Schumacher has never (and most likely will never) make another film as timely, smart, and important as 1993’s Falling Down. If you still remember the helpless dread that filled your soul during Batman & Robin, the idea that the same man was also responsible for something as well-made as Falling Down is still a little hard to swallow, but no matter how hard he’s tried to hide it, there’s an auteur lurking beneath Schumacher’s apparently unquenchable thirst for garishly framed bozo flicks, and more than any of his other detours down more esoteric filmmaking paths, this movie proves it.
No one is more uncomfortable admitting this than I am. As you may have guessed, Batman & Robin ranks as one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had in a theater; I didn’t hate it enough to walk out mid-screening — that honor remains reserved for Eddie Murphy’s Metro, a movie so bad that the audience at my showing booed when it came back on after being paused while paramedics evacuated a man suffering a heart attack — but still, revisiting Falling Down on Blu-ray was a profoundly disorienting experience for me. What happened to this Schumacher? The one who was so good at putting you in a place? Here, Schumacher makes Los Angeles an unwritten character, using the oppressive summer heat and shittiness of the city brilliantly in every frame. In a film full of weapons, Schumacher wields the mid-day sun as perhaps the most lethal of all.
It helps, of course, that Schumacher was given some terrific source material (a script by actor/screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith) and surrounded by a terrific cast and crew. As Bill “D-FENS” Foster, the divorced, out-of-work middle-class man who snaps during a horrendous traffic jam and simply walks away from his car, setting in motion a string of progressively more violent and desperate acts, Michael Douglas is at the peak of his mid-period form; he possesses both the coiled rage to make you believe in the increasingly high-strung Foster and the childlike frustration to make you empathize with his unforgivable acts. Opposite Douglas, Robert Duvall gets to show a decidedly more avuncular side of himself as retiring police detective Martin Prendergrast — but like Foster, Prendergrast is a character more complex than you might think, and like Douglas, Duvall excels at slowly peeling back his layers. Hell, even James Newton Howard is at the top of his game here, delivering a score that sounds more like Ry Cooder’s twisted work on Last Man Standing than the syrupy, sub-John Williams stuff he’s often called on for.
Is it a perfect movie? Heck no; in fact, I’m not even sure I’d call it a great movie. Though it’s filled with smart visual touches — from the message-laden graffiti contributed by L.A. artist Michael McNielly to the scene where a frighteningly savvy kid teaches Foster how to fire a shoulder-mounted anti-tank missile — it’s also got it’s share of heavy-handed stuff, like the shot of American flag souvenirs strewn among shattered glass during Foster’s fight with a Korean storekeeper, or the A-Team-style drive-by that lights up half a block but leaves Foster untouched — or even the series of Denis Leary-esque rants that give Foster his necessary, but still mishandled, airing of the white man’s grievances in early ’90s America.
Still, even if Schumacher occasionally finds it difficult to get out of his own way, I give him credit for being smart enough to save the last few cards of his hand for the final act. At the time of its release, a lot of people took Falling Down at face value, holding Foster up as an amplified voice for all the frustrations and fears middle-class folks were feeling in the post-Cold War era. Los Angeles was the perfect place to broadcast that voice, too; the riots following the Rodney King verdict actually broke out while Falling was being filmed. I can understand this perspective, and viewed from that point of view, the movie is an enjoyable artifact of the early Clinton years — one whose messages still resonate today. Watching the closing moments of the film, however, I was struck by another thought: that Roe and Schumacher weren’t trying to show us modern America through Foster’s disillusioned eyes, they were using Foster as an embodiment of America itself — an America longing for a happier time that was squandered away through selfishness and stupidity, an America that lashes out in frustration and then whimpers, “I’m the bad guy? How did that happen?” An America that, in the end, is woefully unprepared for the new reality facing him, or the many fights he’s picked. Watched from this point of view, I think Falling Down is one of the more scarily prescient films to tumble out of the major studio system during the ’90s, and the fact that it was directed by the guy who’d go on to make crap like The Number 23 is a warning for creative types all over the world.
The new Blu-ray book edition of Falling Down packs the same new bonus content (a new commentary track featuring Schumacher, Douglas, and others involved with the film) as the deluxe DVD version that’s also being released this week, adding three things for the extra $9 you’ll pay: an admittedly informative booklet containing essays about the film and its creative principals, a new 1080p transfer, and a Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Surround audio track. All are of generally excellent quality, although some will quibble with the lack of 5.1 audio, and — as with pretty much any action thriller from the era — the bump up from standard to hi-def is noticeable, but not breathtaking. For devout fans of the film who are looking to expand their Blu-ray libraries, it’ll do nicely, but unless you feel like you really need to see it in HD, you can feel safe picking up Falling Down on DVD.