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Review: "Falling Down" is as relevant as ever

The '90s film has stood the test of time, despite being almost 30 years old.

By Adam J. Yeend, Special to the Star

Michael Douglas stars in the 1993 film, "Falling Down." (Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Joel Schumacher’s controversial 1993 pot-boiler may appear dated at first glance, when in fact for today’s audiences, it is distressingly on point.

What a day in Los Angeles for a heatwave. What a day for a displaced unemployed defense worker to decide he has had enough. The opening scene of “Falling Down” does more than depict LA gridlock. The drivers and passengers in each vehicle represent a melting pot of racial and economic divide all sharing the common anguish of trying to carve out some space. Between the car exhaust, honking horns and sweaty downtrodden facial expressions, we meet our hero or villain depending on where viewers stand.

Michael Douglas plays “D-Fens” (the only name we’re offered via his car’s license plate) making his way on foot from Downtown LA to Venice for his daughter’s birthday. It is on foot that he unrelentingly encounters and confronts the city’s residents – convenience store owners, gang bangers, construction workers, homeless, golfers, white supremacists, and fast-food staff. And then there is soon to be retired cop, Detective Prendergast – played beautifully by Robert Duvall – who is as equally as downtrodden, displaced and discarded as D-Fens; the difference between these two as they journey to face off in the film’s climax, is Prendergast has accepted his fate in this world while D-Fens resists it.

Filmed on location and during the 1992 LA riots, there is no mistaking the fatigue, anger, and cynicism of D-Fens, and in the present day when there is a lot of discussion about white privilege, viewers might ask, “what is this man so angry about?” As an unemployed middle-aged divorcee, he would likely argue he is too highly educated but under-skilled – “not economically viable.” “Falling Down” could be compared to the recent Todd Philips film “Joker”, but there is no iconic villain to transition to; this is a film about middle-age displacement, unemployment, mental health, classism and a broken system in America.

It is impossible to watch “Falling Down” through the lens of a 1990’s audience; the world has experienced too much since. What is fascinating about the film is director Joel Schumacher’s ability to remain objective – this film exists in a grey area – viewers are expected to decide for themselves. And regardless of race, there is a unity for adults viewing this film in that we have all felt like D-Fens at some point, many every day. But Schumacher never gives viewers a reason to cheer for this man turning his back on the law, social graces and the all too familiar “that’s just the way it is.” Schumacher’s focus is the degradation and examination of people’s value as they age, the mental challenges of city life and how individuals choose to cope with it.

One of the most polarizing studio films of the '90s, “Falling Down'' still demands to be seen, from the smog-laden LA cityscape, the two stand out performances from Douglas and Duvall, but more importantly, its depiction of a man’s mental breakdown. It is hot, volatile, confronting and uncomfortable. And, it also feels like home.

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