There was a period during the late 80’s and early 90’s when director Joel Schumacher was hitting home runs. A string of hits that ranged from brat pack movies, to horror, to thrillers, to court room dramas, and eventually culminating with a certain comicbook character. This was to be his bump in the road. But in between all that there was this gritty urban thriller/dark comedy which you’d be forgiven for not realising was a Schumacher movie.
The plot is a simple one. Divorced and recently unemployed defence contractor William Foster is a hot tempered man, he has a short fuse. It is this reason that he is divorced and his wife has a restraining order against him (to keep him from their young daughter). As Foster sits in heavy traffic during a typical hot humid day in LA, he snaps. The presumed combination of the heat, the drudgery of his life, the little annoyances of life, and the current situation with his ex-wife and child all lead him to lose the plot. He therefore leaves his car on the highway and begins to walk through LA to reach his ex-wife’s residence in time for his daughters birthday.
Now this was a controversial film even back in the day. Apart from the fact it was filmed during the infamous LA riots back in 1992, it also sparked debate surrounding race relations, race representations, stereotypes, urban violence, vigilantism etc…Back in the early 90’s LA was known for its gang culture, the street crime and violence. An ever growing melting pot of people in a hot steamy city at a time of recession. Temperatures were high in both senses of the word. Then set against that is this working class white male who seems to represent the average male of middle America from the 50’s. Its almost as if he’s stepped out of a time machine and has waded into a new world full of new cultures, trends and attitudes. A world where he feels he no longer belongs or fits in, an America he no longer recognises.
So essentially the film could be seen as a white male (or aging out of touch white male) lashing out against an ever increasing multicultural society. That is certainly one angle to take as the movie does indeed hint at that at various points. On the other hand you could say this character is supposed to be you the viewer, at least with certain everyday experiences. I think the main crux of this movie is basically to showcase all the things that may have annoyed, frustrated, and pissed off generally all people of all backgrounds at one point or another. I think most people will see specific scenes in this movie and relate to them on a basic level. Or they will agree with the narrative, or they know they have thought the same thing at some point. Because after all we’re all human and many of these emotions and reactions are simply part and parcel of our make-up (whether people want to admit that or not).
So lets look at some of the incidents in this film. Right from the offset the first sequence I’m sure most people can relate to. Foster sitting in his car, in heavy traffic, going nowhere fast, on a clearly sweltering day, and his air con has ceased to function. I’m very sure many people have been in a similar situation and just wanted to get out and walk away. Probably the same in the work place too.
At the convenience store. This is one of the scenes which does indeed show Foster being somewhat offensive towards the Korean immigrant store owner. He becomes angry at the man because of his accent and says he should try to learn English seeing as he has come to an English speaking country. Now behaving in that way towards someone is of course wrong, but there is much talk in many countries these days about immigrants needing to integrate better into the societies they move into. So that social commentary is indeed relevant today. Then again the violent tirade Foster throws at the Korean man over his store prices is obviously totally wrong, criminal. Yet how many people can relate to going into a small private store/grocery/newsagent where the prices are simply exorbitant. In London this is well known.
The gangsters. This was the first scene that initially set Foster on the right track for possibly being the hero of the movie, the common man’s hero at least. Foster is minding his own business simply taking a rest on a lone chunk of concrete debris, when he’s approached by two young gangsters (both of a Latino background). They try to mug Foster claiming he is trespassing on their land. Using the bat he stole from the Korean grocery store Foster successfully beats and scares off the young thugs. This is clearly supposed to be an upbeat moment for the audience; the everyday law abiding citizen standing up against the criminal element.
At the Whammy Burger. Firstly I love how Foster just misses out on the breakfast meal option by about five minutes or so. I can’t recall exactly how many minutes but it was close. Admittedly I haven’t been into a fast food burger joint since I was a teenager so I have no clue if things still work like this nowadays. Secondly I adore how the young manager who speaks with Foster has this idiotic smile plastered across his face at all times (even when he’s clearly annoyed) because that’s obviously the company policy. Thirdly, after Foster has whipped out his gun and finished his tirade, he calmly asks for his breakfast meal. The terrified manager asks the cashier to grab him a breakfast meal. She calmly turns around and picks up the breakfast meal which was literally right there at the front of the rack; so in other words they could have given him a breakfast meal quite easily all along.
The main relatable point from the Whammy Burger scene was of course the fact that when Foster opens up his meal and takes a look at his burger, he’s instantly disgruntled with what he sees. A flat, lifeless, messy, squashed looking burger that looks nothing like the fat juicy burgers advertised in the restaurant. Even to this day I’ll bet anything that this is still the case. It certainly was back in the day when I was a kid. The burgers never looked like the pictures you saw on advertisements.
The army surplus store. Now this scene is clearly one of the darkest in the film and offers up a glimpse of real heroism for Foster who, up until this point, is clearly an anti-hero on a rollercoaster. Said surplus store is owned by Nick (Frederic Forrest), a neo Nazi/white supremacist vet (a white skinhead, the biggest stereotype going). Now this guy was a real class act creep, superbly performed by Forrest I might add. We get the picture straight away when he verbally abuses a gay couple in his store. He then covers for Foster when Detective Torres (Rachel Ticotin) comes in. Nick recognises Foster from police reports on his radio and is thrilled to see him. Nick sees Foster as a white vigilante who is targeting minorities, which he agrees with.
Now I have to point out that despite Nick being an avowed racist and truly nasty character, you’re not entirely sure if Foster is actually gonna side with him or not. Because after all…Nick did help him. Still Foster is clearly unsure about this guy. But its not really until Nick shows him his private collection of military antiques (that includes various Nazi memorabilia), his continued harsh language against various groups of people, and the breakage of a birthday present for his daughter, that Foster makes his decision. On one hand Foster seems to do something right by taking out this ugly character. On the other hand I kinda get the impression he only did so because the present he bought for his daughter was smashed by Nick. So at the end of the day, which was it?
The golf course. This was another scene which was basically setting up Foster as the common mans hero. A large plush golf course used exclusively by rich elderly (white) males. As Foster points out in yet another tirade, you could have playgrounds for kids here, you could have a park for families. So when he again whips out his weapon and gives one of the old geezers a heart attack by shooting his little electric golf cart, its easy to cheer for Foster whilst laughing at the gallows humour of it all. Like many of the things that happen in this movie Foster does have a legitimate point with some of his rants, but you simply can’t go around doing the things he is doing. Even if in some cases those actions do seem completely appropriate.
The road works. Again another scenario where most viewers would agree and cheer Foster on. How many times have you come across road works that have seemingly popped up out of nowhere? How many times have road works made your journey an absolute misery? How many minutes and hours have you lost being stuck in traffic caused by road works? How many times have you been late for something because of road works? I’m sure everyone can relate to this, UK dwellers especially. So when Foster gets a construction worker to admit there was nothing wrong with the road and they’re only doing it to justify their budget, you feel a sense of satisfaction that the film is addressing this, backing you up. Thing is, did the construction worker only admit this because he saw Foster’s gun?
Still it was amusing to watch the young African American boy talk Foster through using the bazooka. Another cute little dig at the possible ease of which kids were able to find out about dangerous violent things through various forms of media at the time.
In the end Schumacher seemingly can’t decide what message he really wants to send with this movie. Is Foster a hero for the common man? Is he an anti-hero? Is he in fact the villain of the piece? I really don’t know as the message swings like a pendulum. Some scenes clearly show Foster as a man standing up for the little people. Some scenes merely show him cementing little frustrations we have all encountered throughout our lives at some point. But then there are some scenes where he is clearly in the wrong, he goes too far and takes the law into his own hands.
Take the short sequence where a black man (Vondie Curtis-Hall) is peacefully protesting in front of his bank because they have recently deemed him ‘not economically viable’. The cops show up and haul him away (peacefully without force) as Foster looks on. What exactly is Schumacher saying here? Is he actually admitting that Foster has ‘white privilege’ in the fact that he himself hasn’t yet been hauled away by the cops? That an African American man cannot peacefully (and politely) speak his mind in the street without being arrested? Maybe Foster doesn’t have it as bad as certain minorities? Or is it simply because he was disturbing the peace outside of a place of business? Because some of these notions would kinda undermine Schumacher’s main aim for his protagonist, the basis of the film.
What’s more we discover in bits that Foster’s wife is actually scared of him. She is scared for her safety and the safety of her daughter because Foster has a bad temper (hence the restraining order). We see small snippets from the past via a VHS recording that shows Foster losing his patience with his wife; getting angry when things aren’t going the way he wants with a previous birthday for his daughter. Then towards the finale his wife flees their house with her daughter because she knows he’s nearby. So we know Foster is a genuinely unstable man, he has issues and could be a legitimate threat to his family.
I can’t deny the ending is a very downbeat and sad affair. Schumacher gives this character one last chance to redeem himself, one last scene for the viewers to understand and maybe forgive this character. And to a point that works because you do feel for him, whilst at the same time you do feel for Sgt. Prendergast (Robert Duvall) who has been put in the situation of kill or be killed on his last day on the force (often people don’t think about the trauma cops suffer). Essentially Foster commits suicide by cop and escapes repercussions for his actions leaving his daughter fatherless. So even though you can’t help but feel sorry for the man (the score is typically moving) and you side with him on many of his actions, he was still wrong and a douchebag.
With all that being said this is still a (surprisingly) powerful film from Schumacher with a top notch performance from Douglas. It is obviously very 90’s visually but I love how Schumacher gives everything a yellow/orange hue to really highlight the muggy stifling heat in the city. Almost everyone has a sweaty brow or face on closeups. I have to be honest and say the film does slow down when its not following the character of Foster. Everything to do with his wife and kid is generally boring apart from the finale. And everything to do with the cops and Robert Duvall’s character just seemed kinda generic really (almost Lethal Weapon-ish in some scenes). It is a tad stupid how it takes the police so long to catch up with Foster, seeing as he’s easily identifiable and simply walking around casually with a sports bag full of guns, but anyway.
Most definitely thought provoking, most definitely an enjoyable engaging ride; unfortunately its full of mixed signals which will be inevitably problematic for different people.