William Foster is recently divorced, and his ex-wife Beth has a restraining order to keep him away from their young child, Adele. In addition, he was recently laid off from his job. His frustration grows when his air conditioning fails while he is stuck in traffic. He abandons his car and begins walking across L.A. to attend Adele’s birthday party.
At a convenience store, the Korean owner refuses to give change for a telephone call. Foster begins ranting about the high prices. The owner grabs a baseball bat and demands Foster leave. Foster takes the bat and destroys much of the merchandise before paying for a soda and leaving. Shortly thereafter, while resting on a hill, he is accosted by two gang members who threaten him with a knife and demand his briefcase. Foster attacks them with the bat and picks up the knife when they flee.
The two gang members, now in a car with friends, cruise the streets and find Foster in a phone booth. They open fire, hitting several bystanders but not Foster. The driver loses control and crashes. Foster picks up a gun, shoots the one surviving gang member in the leg, and then leaves with their bag of weapons. Foster encounters a panhandler and gives him the briefcase, which only contains his lunch.
At a fast food restaurant, Foster attempts to order breakfast, but they have switched to the lunch menu. After an argument with the manager, Foster pulls a gun and accidentally fires into the ceiling. After trying to reassure the frightened employees and customers, he orders lunch, but is annoyed when the burger looks nothing like the one shown on the menu. He leaves, tries to call Beth from a phone booth, then shoots the booth to pieces after being hassled by someone who was waiting to use the phone.
Police Sergeant Martin Prendergast, who is on his last day before retirement, insists on investigating the crimes. Interviews with the witnesses at each scene lead Prendergast to realize that the same person may be responsible. Foster's “D-FENS” vanity license plate proves to be an important lead, because Prendergast remembers being in the same traffic jam as Foster earlier that day. Prendergast and his partner, Detective Torres, visit Foster's mother, who is surprised to learn that Foster lost his job. They realize Foster is heading toward his former family's home in Venice, Los Angeles and rush to intercept him.
Foster passes a bank where a black man is protesting being rejected for a loan application. The man exchanges a glance with Foster and says "don't forget me" as he is escorted away by police. Foster stops at a military surplus store to buy a new pair of shoes. The owner, a white supremacist, diverts Torres’ attention when she comes in to ask questions. After she leaves, he offers Foster a rocket launcher, and congratulates him for shooting "a bunch of niggers" at the Whammy Burger. When Foster expresses distaste for the store owner's bigotry and homophobic slurs, the man pulls a gun, destroys a snow globe Foster bought Adele for a birthday present and attempts to turn him over to the police, but Foster stabs him with the gang member's knife, then shoots him to death in cold blood. He changes into army fatigues and boots, takes the rocket launcher, and leaves.
Foster calls Beth from another pay-phone, and tells her that he is "coming home", in violation of his restraining order. Alarmed by his rambling speech and menacing manner, Beth calls the police; they send a pair of officers to her home, but they do not believe that Foster really intends to harm her, and therefore only stay for a short time.
Foster encounters a road repair crew, who are not working, and accuses them of doing unnecessary repairs to justify their budget. He pulls out the rocket launcher, but struggles to use it, until a young boy explains how it works. Foster accidentally fires the launcher, blowing up the construction site.
Foster calls Beth and tells her that he is close to her home. Terrified, she flees with Adele. When Foster reaches the empty house, he realizes that they may have gone to nearby Venice Pier, but Prendergast and Torres arrive before he can go after them. Foster shoots and wounds Torres and flees, with Prendergast in pursuit.
At the end of the pier, Foster confronts Beth and Adele. Adele is happy to see him, but Beth believes that he has come to kill them. Prendergast arrives and intervenes. He acknowledges Foster's complaints about being ill-treated by society, but doesn't accept that as an excuse for his rampage. Distracting Foster, Beth kicks the gun away as Prendergast draws his revolver, insisting that Foster give himself up. Foster, remembering Adele would receive his life insurance if he dies pulls a water gun, forcing Prendergast to shoot him dead.Michael Douglas as William Foster / "D-FENS"
Robert Duvall as Sgt. Martin Prendergast
Barbara Hershey as Elizabeth "Beth" Trevino
Rachel Ticotin as Det. Sandra Torres
Tuesday Weld as Amanda Prendergast
Frederic Forrest as Nick, Army surplus store owner
Lois Smith as Foster's mother
Joey Hope Singer as Adele Foster-Trevino
Michael Paul Chan as Mr. Lee, Korean store owner
Raymond J. Barry as Capt. William Yardley
D. W. Moffett as Det. Lydecker
Steve Park as Detective Brian
Karina Arroyave as Angie, gang girl
Dedee Pfeiffer as Sheila Folsom, Whammy Burger employee
Vondie Curtis-Hall as "Not Economically Viable" Man
Falling Down was being shot on locations in Lynwood, California when the 1992 Los Angeles riots began. By April 30, the riots were sufficiently disruptive to force filming to stop early that day. Film crews produced more footage inside of Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank as the riots continued. By May 4, when the crew intended to resume in Pasadena, initial requests to do so were denied, causing delays. The tension around the riots was something that the filmmakers deemed to have an effect on the finished film. Filming wrapped in late June 1992.
In an interview less than a week before the Falling Down's release, screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith gave his interpretation of what the movie was about. "To me, even though the movie deals with complicated urban issues, it really is just about one basic thing: The main character represents the old power structure of the U.S. that has now become archaic, and hopelessly lost. And that way, I guess you could say D-FENS is like Los Angeles. For both of them, it's adjust-or-die time..."
The film grossed $40.9 million against a $25 million budget. It took the top spot in United States domestic box office totals in its first two weeks of release (February 26-28 and March 5-7, 1993). Falling Down pushed the previous top movie, Groundhog Day, into the second place box-office spot for both those weeks.
Reviews for the film were generally positive. Falling Down holds a 73% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 56 out of 100 ("mixed or average reviews") on Metacritic.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "the most interesting, all-out commercial American film of the year to date, and one that will function much like a Rorschach test to expose the secrets of those who watch it." Philip Thomas of Empire magazine wrote in his review of the film, "While the morality of D-Fens' methods are questionable, there's a resonance about his reaction to everyday annoyances, and Michael Douglas' hypnotic performance makes it memorable." James Berardinelli wrote: "Falling Down is replete with gallows humor, almost to the point where it could be classified as a 'black comedy'." John Truby calls the film "an anti-Odyssey story" about "the lie of the American dream". He adds "I can't remember laughing so hard in a movie."
Roger Ebert, who gave the film a positive review at the time of its release, stated of Foster:
What is fascinating about the Douglas character, as written and played, is the core of sadness in his soul. Yes, by the time we meet him, he has gone over the edge. But there is no exhilaration in his rampage, no release. He seems weary and confused, and in his actions he unconsciously follows scripts that he may have learned from the movies, or on the news, where other frustrated misfits vent their rage on innocent bystanders.
Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club has been critical of the film:
It’s seemingly meant as a sort of dark comedy about the petty annoyances of life, and how they can accumulate and become so maddening that over-the-top cathartic violence seems like the only satisfying option. But Douglas’ violent reaction to his surroundings, and the way the film treats virtually everyone around him as worthless, and presents his violence as the comedic payoff, turns it into a tone-deaf, self-pitying lament about the terrible persecution facing the oppressed majority in an era of political correctness and increasing multiculturalism. In its ugly, skewed world, almost everyone but this madman is dumb, incompetent, and offensive, and his only possible solution is to wipe a few of these losers off the face of the earth, then die. It’s a profoundly hateful film disguised alternately (and erratically) as either tragedy or humor.
The Washington Post writer Hal Hinson observed:
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", adding "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.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film four stars out of five, writing:
There's no denying the power of the tale or of Douglas's riveting performance - his best and riskiest since Wall Street. Douglas neither demonizes nor canonizes this flawed character. Marching across a violent urban landscape toward an illusory home, this shattered Everyman is never less than real... "I'm the bad guy?" he asks in disbelief. Douglas speaks the line with a searing poignancy that illuminates uncomfortable truths without excusing the character. Schumacher could have exploited those tabloid headlines about solid citizens going berserk. Instead, the timely, gripping Falling Down puts a human face on a cold statistic and then dares us to look away.
At the time of its release Douglas' father, actor Kirk Douglas, declared "He played it brilliantly. I think it is his best piece of work to date." He also defended the film against critics who claimed that it glorifies lawbreaking: "Michael's character is not the 'hero' or 'newest urban icon'. He is the villain and the victim. Of course, we see many elements of our society that contributed to his madness. We even pity him. But the movie never condones his actions."
On the 25th anniversary of the film's release, film critic April Wolfe of LA Weekly wrote that it "remains one of Hollywood’s most overt yet morally complex depictions of the modern white-victimization narrative, one both adored and reviled by the extreme right". Wolfe said "Today, we might see D-Fens and the white supremacist as the infighting sides of the far right — one couches racism in coded words like “thug,” while the other wants an outright ethnic cleanse. Ultimately, what both want is to return to their idea of a purer America, unburdened by the concerns of minorities and women". Wolfe suggested that Rupert Murdoch would "go on to bottle that fury and package it as patriotism" in creating Fox News.
Contextually, Falling Down was released in theatres less than one year after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. In them, the targeting of Korean-Americans and their businesses by rioters was a point of fact. The Korean American Coalition and Korean Grocers Association protested the film for its treatment of minorities, especially the Korean grocer. Warner Brothers Korea canceled the release of Falling Down in South Korea following boycott threats. The outcry by the Grocers Association in particular was sufficient to see Michael Douglas meet with members at Warner Brothers Studio because they "were there and they were pissed. So we had a conversation and I told them, ‘Look, I’m very sorry, but there’s a reason the screenwriter picked certain things to put in the film.'"
Unemployed defense workers were also angered at their portrayal in the film. Falling Down has been described as a definitive exploration of the notion of the "angry white male"; the character of D‑FENS was featured on magazine covers, including the March 29, 1993 issue of Newsweek magazine, and reported upon as an embodiment of the stereotype.
Cynthia Hurley, the former wife of Craig Stephen Hicks (the accused in the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting) confirmed that Hicks's favorite film was Falling Down. "That always freaked me out. (Craig) watched it incessantly. He thought it was hilarious. He had no compassion at all," she told the Associated Press in February 2015, just after the shooting that was allegedly committed by Hicks.1993 Cannes Film Festival, Nominated for the Palme d'Or (Joel Schumacher)
1994 Edgar Award, Won for Best Motion Picture Screenplay (Ebbe Roe Smith)
The Simpsons would later use Douglas's character as the model for Frank Grimes in the episode "Homer's Enemy."
The Foo Fighters based their music video for the song "Walk" on the plot of Falling Down.
The lyrics to Iron Maiden's 1995 single "Man on the Edge" are based on the film.