COMMENTARY : 'Falling Down' Trips Over Its Own Hate : Movies: The film isn't some all-purpose cry of disgust. It's the howl of a scared, white, urban middle-class man.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Targeting bad guys in the movies can be a tricky business. Problemsset in once you get past cannibal shrinks and Freddy Krueger and homicidal movie executives. In a film industry where fomenting hate can be big business, the question of just who is safe to target is no idle issue.

"Falling Down" is a real rabble-rouser with an entire home-shopping network of hates, but it gets audiences high by keeping things ghastly giddy in the "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore" mode.

The filmmakers work in their worst-possible-case stereotypes and then make us side with the guy taking pot shots. That's how the movie gets us to hate "politically sensitive" targets with impunity.

The scowling, buzz-cut targeter, played by Michael Douglas, is generally identified as D-FENS because that's what it says on the personalized license plate of the car he abandons at the start of the movie on a choked freeway in the downtown L.A. district.

An aerospace worker who was fired from his job a month before, he just wants to get across town to Venice to see his child on her birthday. But things keep getting in the way. At every one of his Stations of the Cross (pun intended), we're served up a fresh new outrage.

Heading the hit list are surly Korean merchants; Latino gangbangers; lying, cheating, homeless beggars; do-nothing construction workers. In case those targets seem too reactionary, we're offered as decoys neo-Nazi survivalists, country-club snobs and filthy rich doctors.

In a more ecumenical vein, we're given a back list of people who won't serve you breakfast at a fast-food joint during lunch hour, and guys who harass you to get off the pay phone. We're given traffic jams, smog, graffiti. There's a red-hot button for everyone to push.

Or almost everyone. For you only have to imagine what this movie might have been like if the lead had been played by, say, an enraged Asian, or a Latino, to recognize how rigged it really is. "Falling Down" isn't some all-purpose cry of disgust. It's the howl of a scared, white, urban middle-class man.

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What's obnoxious about the movie is that, even though it sustains a tone of apocalyptic tomfoolery, it plumps for D-FENS' prejudices. (That tomfoolery is a decoy too; it helps soften us for the punch.) D-FENS may be a nut, the film is saying, but he's a necessary nut--"our" nut. He's a guerrilla in the political correctness wars; his scorched-earth trek across Los Angeles obeys no proprieties.

Movies like "Falling Down" don't get made unless the movie company--in this case, Warner Bros.--thinks these targets can be hit without penalty. The studio line is that this is a movie that is meant to make us aware of hate, but the whoops that the film carefully engineers from the audience at each kill and kapowie tell a different story.

The film's sheer overload of targets is in marked contrast to what we've been used to in movies for the past decade or so. Before then, in the period, for example, that stretched from roughly the late 1960s to the mid-'70s , you could expect to see movies where hippies, Vietnam vets, black drug dealers, white drug dealers, bleeding-heart liberals, cops and the press were all regularly whacked.

Some of those films tried to explore what was churning us up, while some merely exploited our feelings of helplessness. But at least the bugaboos were out in the open.

Contrast this with the weak-tea movie scene of the past decade. The convergence of Reagan-Bush era feel-goodism and bottom-line don't-rock-the-boat studio management resulted in a generation of non-controversial films that never seemed to explicitly address our prejudices. What we got instead was subtext and symbolism, like the way the city, in movies like "Batman," was made to stand in for all that was rotting and malevolent in society. Race issues had to wait for a new generation of black filmmakers working mostly outside the industry.

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"Falling Down" is a last-minute whammy from the Reagan-Bush era that finally makes explicit the social divisiveness that was implicit in so many of the films from that period. And it's a return to some of the worst prejudice-baiting impulses of the '70s films, with none of their redeeming virtues: It's a smorgasbord "Death Wish."

The film encourages audiences to groove on D-FENS' reprehensible actions by building into each one of them an audience-pleasing rationale. Shooting a man and plugging a pay phone are all experienced on the same level. This is how you turn a psycho into a sacrificial hero.

When, for example, D-FENS tears up a Korean grocery store because the owner won't give him change for a phone call without making a purchase, the rationale is that D-FENS is just standing up for his rights as a consumer. All the products in the store are over-priced, so he smashes them.

The Latino gang member he shoots point-blank went after him earlier with a switchblade and, later, an Uzi, because he wandered unknowingly onto the gang's turf. How was he to know?

The homeless guy who asks him for money--and is turned down flat--turns out to be a smarmy faker. The rich doctor whose home he trespasses is not, say, an emergency room physician or a cancer specialist but a plastic surgeon (read: Beverly Hills phony baloney). The bald neo-Nazi who runs an Army surplus store spews drool about Jews, gays, women. He gets his, too, just so that we know D-FENS isn't as bad as all that.

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But notice who this film doesn't go after. Latinos and Koreans and neo-Nazis and fast-food operators are apparently fair game, but after that it gets a little touchy. We see conspicuously few black people, for example. Those that we do see, like the well-dressed crazed-with-grief man who pickets his bank because they won't give him a loan, or the chubby, polite kid who teaches D-FENS how to shoot a bazooka, are haloed. (Is it too cynical to suggest that the Korean merchant in this film was included as a sop to the animosities of the commercially imposing black audience? After all, middle-class whites do not have much truck with Korean merchants.)

The police, personified by an avuncular, thoughtful detective played by Robert Duvall, are on their best behavior. No police brutality in sight. (To balance out the score sheet, Duvall, of course, is given a sympathetic Latino partner, a woman.) In this land of Rodney G. King and Daryl Gates, these omissions are weird blips in the hit parade. Could it be that the scourges behind this film came down with a case of cold--no, make that frostbitten-- feet?

Even without seeing any prominent black faces, we get the point: Los Angeles is a melting-pot nightmare.

Even the ecosystem has rebelled. The air is molten with smog, the palm trees are choking. D-FENS is a white reactionary's fantasy hero because his targets are the minorities and immigrants who are trying to make their way into a society he finds himself excluded from. He served his country with distinction as a defense worker until he was cut loose; he kept an eye out for the Commies; his father won the Purple Heart in World War II. Is this the thanks he gets?

"Falling Down" is set up to show us that, in a mixed-race society where everybody is at each other's throats, middle-class whites have assumed minority status too; they have it as bad as everybody else now. And what the film attempts to do is to give its white audience license to stop feeling guilty and start getting angry.

From Bogart to James Dean, movie anti-heroes have traditionally been romanticized. Deep down they covet the society they pretend to reject. D-FENS, with his buzz cut and his nerdy pocket protector and thick glasses, is intentionally anti-romantic. He rejects the idea of society--or at least a mixed one.

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He's the first rabble-rousing representative on film of the new "oppressed" white minority, though you can hear his nonstop voice on talk-radio bands from coast to coast. "Falling Down" has some of the same loony oomph as the radio talk shows--it drowns you out by raising backlash to new heights of clamor. To the loudest goes the spoils.

"How did I get to be the bad guy?" asks D-FENS just before his final curtain. We in the audience, of course, know differently. After watching "Falling Down," we know who the real bad guys are.

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