I have to hand it to Joel Schumacher. Here's a journeyman Hollywood director that has never risen to the top-tier of Hollywood filmmakers (at least, he's not considered a Spielberg or a Scorsese), and who has taken more than a beating from high-brow critics. Yet, Schumacher has persevered as one of the busiest and most commercial helmers in the biz, churning out what seems like a flick a year for the past three decades. Sure, his name is responsible for a load of tripe ('8MM,' 'Flawless,' 'Phantom of the Opera,' 'Number 23,' 'Batman & Robin') but also a few underrated gems, including 'Veronica Guerin,' 'Tigerland,' 'Lost Boys' and 'Cousins.' Topping the latter list is 'Falling Down,' which just may be his best film, as well as one of the few "vigilante movies" ever made that actually has something worthwhile to say about wanton violence in our modern culture, and its roots in middle-class disenfranchisement.
The plot of 'Falling Down' probably reads like just another 'Death Wish' rip-off on paper, but that's only because no synopsis can convey the restraint that screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith and Schumacher take in crafting a story that is believable and restrained. Michael Douglas stars as a newly-unemployed defense worker, D-FENS as he will eventually be called by the police (thanks to his same-titled license plate), who, as the film begins, is ready to snap. Trapped in his car on a crowded, smoggy highway, D-FENS simply abandons his vehicle in a moment's rage, and launches into a cross-town siege to take the law into his own hands and set all of the world's wrongs right.
The fact that there initially appears to be no apparent rhyme or reason to D-FENS' plan of attack is one of the film's greatest strengths. As he unravels, so does his ability to hold onto the normal boundaries of propriety we all must cling to in order to survive in modern society. Schumacher and Smith are very clever in the way the weave in his backstory -- the cops, led by Prendergast (Robert Duvall) quickly move in and piece together his background, and we also see brief glimpses of D-FENS' homelife (including a wife, Barbara Hershey). The narrative structure is a welcome challenge, as it forces us to hold our natural preconceptions as the information trickles in, or to question our own rush to judgment after a carefully-modulated reveal betrays our initial prejudices.
'Falling Down' also avoids many of the traps of more simple-minded or exploitative vigilante films. The racial tensions inherent in D-FENS' frustration are unavoidable, of course -- he's not just an ordinary blue collar man, he's an ordinary blue collar white man. Yet again, the film surprises us constantly as it plays out its series of vignettes. Every street corner, every storefront, every alleyway is populated with Asians and African-Americans, with gay men and feminists. But D-FENS does not always act in the cliched ways we expect -- his quest is much more ambiguous than a didactic paean against racial cleansing, misogyny, or homophobia. I won't spoil any of the film's conclusions, but Schumacher, Smith, and Douglas (in a terrific, unjustly overlooked performance) create something far more believable -- and ultimately wrenching -- in D-FENS' middle-class panic.
If 'Falling Down' falls down at all, it may be in figuring out a way to fully resolve D-FENS predicament. The ending that Smith and Schumacher do devise is consistent and logical, it just didn't fully satisfy me emotionally. Perhaps it's fitting, however, for a story about an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances, and who futilely attempts to make statement against a media-saturated world that doesn't have the ability to listen. It's not a downbeat denouement, just a low-key one -- perhaps too much so.
Meandering finale aside, 'Falling Down' remains one of best sleepers of the past couple of decades. Though a small hit with critics and audiences, it still feels overlooked and underappreciated. It's certainly one of Schumacher's best films, and Douglas is pretty terrific. Add a perceptive script that genuinely attempts to tackle an important social issue but rarely lapses into heavy-handedness, and you have a smart and taut vigilante drama that is, sadly, just as topical as ever.
Warner presents 'Falling Down' in 1080p/VC-1 video (2.35:1), confined to a BD-25 single-layer disc and minted from a new master made for this and a concurrent DVD re-issue. It's a nice-looking transfer, and indeed a slight step up over standard-def -- but it's not exceptional.
The source is in good shape, clean throughout, with a slight veil of grain that renders a film-like picture. Blacks are firm, though contrast feels a bit flat to me in the mid-range. Depth and detail are solid for a 1993 release, though this is not the most three-dimensional high-def image I've ever seen. Sharpness is good as well, with only a few soft shots here or there. The film's color palette is natural, with nicely saturated hues and accurate fleshtones, though the picture never truly proves vibrant. Without a doubt, 'Falling Down' looks good, though Warner has delivered better catalog remasters in the past.
Surprisingly, we only get an English Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Surround track here (48kHz/16-bit) -- though technically a surround track, I didn't hear anything in the rears to speak of. That makes for a limited aural experience, which is a disappointment considering the subject matter of the film and the many outdoor locations, which would have benefited from a dedicated 5.1 remaster.
The mix is all front heavy. Stereo separation is perfectly fine, and dialogue -- the star of the show -- is recorded well and balanced nicely in the mix. The film boasts fairly wide dynamics, with low bass as adequate as could be expected without a .1 LFE channel and a fairly expansive feel to the rest of the frequency spectrum. Ultimately, the film's frequent action and gunfire, combined with the noisy locations, could have sounded much less dull than it does here.
Warner has produced a "special edition" of 'Falling Down' for both Blu-ray and DVD, though it isn't exactly packed with supplements. These goodies aren't bad, just not nearly as in-depth as a fan would hope. Note that 'Falling Down' also comes housed in Warner's DigiBook packaging, which as a collector I quite like (just be careful with it, though, as it's more subject to wear-and-tear than your average Blu-ray keepcase).
'Falling Down' is a sleeper -- an adult drama that's topical, and takes seriously the subject of violence in today's overheated culture. It also contains an underrated performance by Michael Douglas and tight direction by Joel Schumacher. This Blu-ray is solid, with good video and a some interesting supplements, though the lack of surround audio is puzzling. Still, 'Falling Down' is a good movie and worth a look.