It has been more than 15 years since we’ve had a major entry in the once-popular uptight-white-guy-flips-his-lid genre. Why the hiatus? Here’s a theory: After being up against the wall throughout the ’70s, uptight white guys had it pretty good in the ’80s. Now they don’t again. And we get Falling Down, a pure genre film that doesn’t miss a trick. Director Joel Schumacher’s arrant urban fantasia picks up almost exactly where the genre left off in the mid-’70s, after the rules were laid out in films like Straw Dogs, Death Wish, and Network.
Rule No. 1: The hero must be a dweeb. In Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Dustin Hoffman plays a bespectacled Yank who runs up against murderous locals in the tiny English village to which he has retreated to write a book. And not just any book: a mathematics treatise. In the original Death Wish (not to mention the three sequels to date), Charles Bronson plays Paul Kersey, a New York architect who’s such a ”bleeding heart” that he was a conscientious objector in Korea (i.e., before Vietnam made it okay). And Michael Douglas, as a laid-off defense worker who pops a gasket in Falling Down, has been gussied up in Hollywood’s idea of Nerdwear, right down to the short-sleeved shirt and pocket protector. (You might argue that Network’s Peter Finch — playing news anchor Howard Beale, who drops a gear on national TV — is an exception to Rule No. 1. You might also argue that a news anchor is just a debate-team wonk made good.)
Rule No. 2: The villains must be stand-ins for social decay. Uptight-white-guy-flips-his-lid movies tend to grab you by the lapels and shriek that the world’s going to hell; the culprits are not too specific. The muggers that Death Wish’s Kersey goes gunning for after his wife and daughter are assaulted have as much personality as shooting-range silhouettes (which, let’s face it, is their function). Paddy Chayefsky’s script for Network never decides who’s worse: TV programmers for serving the swill or audiences for swallowing it. Falling Down, for its part, has an admirably broad list of peeves: traffic jams, rude Korean shop clerks, barrio hoodlums, fast-food servers, neo-Nazi nuts. They’re all presented as cartoons, too — just the way anybody who was having a bad day would see them.
Rule No. 3: Revenge must be sweet. The bottom line these movies exist for is the scenes in which the protagonist’s bottled frustrations explode into rage. We’re meant to share in that rage, whether or not the script pussyfoots around it later on. Howard Beale’s furious ”I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” in Network became a rallying cry on screen and off. The bloody eruptions in Death Wish and Straw Dogs feel like visceral justice (only the latter asks why, and then implicitly). Falling Down, though, pulls a bait-and-switch, diving into the hero’s actions with cathartic glee only to turn him into a psycho at the end and switching our point of view to that of the weary cop (Robert Duvall) on his trail. Maybe that’s meant to get us to question our own potential for crossing into irrationality — but it smells like plain old hypocrisy.
Rule No. 4: Women must be either victims or shrews. It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world in these flicks. Paul Kersey’s wife and daughter in Death Wish are sacrificial lambs, dispatched brutally and efficiently in the first 10 minutes. Conversely, Faye Dunaway is Network’s hectoring face of evil as the programming executrix who’s willing to kill for a good rating. Schumacher gives us one of each type in Falling Down — and wastes two good actresses in the bargain. As Douglas’ estranged wife, Barbara Hershey has little to do but look wanly harried, while Tuesday Weld plays Duvall’s spouse as a castrating neurotic whose comeuppance we’re meant to cheer (the movie also casts Rachel Ticotin as Duvall’s strong, sensible partner — then puts a bullet in her). Only Straw Dogs dares to posit that the two sides might possibly exist in the same character: Susan George makes the part of the wimp’s wife a disturbing, problematic, complex figure.
Rule No. 5: Subtlety is for sissies. Sooner or later out comes the sledgehammer. Even the thoughtful Network devolves into heavy-handed speechifying by the last half hour. Falling Down never breaks out of the straitjacket of slick agitprop, and after a while the contorted camera angles and vein-popping dialogue wear you down to an insensate nub. A lot of critics faulted Schumacher and screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith for racist characterizations, but they missed the point. This movie reduces all the characters to sour comic-book signboards. Which is a shame, because there are too many tormented fools in this country who bug out with guns, and a film that examined one of them without worrying about its own jazzy cynicism might be worth seeing. Too bad Falling Down is too busy yelling to actually say anything. C-