You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory, yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker – a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet, a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.
The latter not so much budgetary, though. For a Joel Silver picture, Ricochet was positively modest. Particularly so, when you consider that either side of it were two out-of-control Bruce Willis vehicles (derided all-time-bomb Hudson Hawk arrived in May, albeit its international gross mitigated the US performance somewhat, while Last Boy Scout, released in December, was known to have been salvaged in the editing room). Ricochet hit No.2 in the charts (unable to knock The Fisher King off its perch) and tumbled out of the Top 10 after four weeks; like many movies of its era, however, it was guaranteed a video afterlife. It wasn’t as if director Russell Mulcahy – whose fraught Highlander II: The Quickening had been savaged earlier that the year – or Washington – who was yet to establish himself as a box office-draw, despite critical acclaim extending back to the mid-80s – had too much to complain about. Silver, though, was becoming stuck in an importune groove, relying on Die Hards or Lethal Weapons to salvage less financially savvy decisions.
Ricochet’s excesses were in the content rather than the spending, then. It’s almost gleeful in its desire to provoke, and initially at least, it’s buoyed by such an attitude. Washington’s Nick Styles is a cleaner-than-clean rookie police officer, even breaking off basketball meets with childhood pal Odessa (Ice T) when he realises he’s doing crimes (drug dealing). He’s also (very resistibly) self-assured and self-promoting, such that a stripping-to-his-undies routine in front of armed hitman Earl Talbot Blake (John Lithgow), as a ruse to shoot him with his butt gun – Shane Black would later riff on this for one Val Kilmer keeps in his balls – does the trick of getting him a promotion and huge publicity, even if it wasn’t explicitly intended that way. It’s the kind of unprompted silliness that sees Ricochet starting as it means to continue; Blake is put away, vowing revenge, and eight years later, with the aid of some neo-Nazis, he breaks out and puts an extremely devious and lurid scheme in motion to topple Nick – now an assistant DA and married with two kids – from his lofty perch.
It’s with Blake’s incarceration and subsequent plan that Ricochet really scores. Mulcahy is clearly having a blast with these sequences, as Blake rises to top prison dog by killing Jesse Ventura in a bizarre, Highlander-riffing “sword” fight. Earlier, he has plastered his cell wall with cuttings and blown-up images of Styles. Steven E de Souza (Die Hard) takes credit for the screenplay (originally by Fred Dekker, who wrote it as a Dirty Harry, had it rejected by Clint as “too grim” and then “I met Kurt Russell about starring in it with me directing, but eventually it became the movie you know. I counted seven things of mine left in the finished product”). Amid the cheesy numbers, there’s some very funny dialogue, usually on the absurd end of the spectrum: “I hope you flossed first” a prison guard advises Blake before his hearing; “I did. With your wife’s pubic hair” comes the reply. At the hearing, Blake tells Mr Chairman the first thing he will do on parole is pay a visit to his house. To pay his respects? “No, to fuck your wife. And your daughter. Hell, maybe even your dog.”
DA Brimleigh: The clap, Nick. You have the clap.
Such extravagant villainy continues well past Blake’s ultra-violent escape (power tools applied with extreme prejudice; in common with the previous year’s Predator 2 – also a Silver production – much of the violence was pruned following test screenings. It’s still pretty grisly). In order to bring Nick’s world crashing down, Blake first frames Councilman Farris (John Cothran Jr) for possession of child pornography. It’s slightly alarming that the makers showed the actual cover of the magazine, and understandable that the BBFC cut the shot in the UK; it would suggest someone on the crew was sent out to purchase such a publication, in order to include it in the name of “authenticity”. Unless such material was simply lying around the set anyway; this is, after all, Hollywood. Farris has also been stitched up for embezzlement (making his death look like a suicide with handy confession). Blake then kidnaps Nick, smacks him up with coke and heroin (“The best shit telefon money can buy”) and has a hooker give him the clap, before releasing him to a press eager to feast on the remains.
Alice: It’s just quite a story.
Even Nick’s wife (Victoria Dillard) begins to have her doubts. Nick protests he fought the hooker with every inch of his being: “Well, if you managed to get the clap, I can think of several inches that didn’t put up a fight”. Everyone’s a comedian! As Nick’s life unravels and Blake ghoulishly laps up his every humiliation, there is a feeling Styles has it coming, so spotless is he (even his dad, Die Hard 2’s John Amos, is a preacher). It also, on the face of it, appears to be a meticulously well-crafted scheme, such that a video of Blake menacing Nick’s kids (“Is it really our birthday, Mr Power man?”) is swiped back from his house while he pegs it down the street to the park – in a pink dressing gown – to rescue his (entirely safe) children.
Ricochet’s is an interesting scenario then, one of ensuring, through fair means or foul, that a public figure is compromised through their provable depravity. Which is the Elite modus operandi, essentially (notably, Blake is no white supremacist; he’s simply using the neo-Nazis, testifying to a paradigm based on Hegelian conflicts). Thus, while Nick smiles in knowing disbelief at the conversation between a talk show host (George Christy, also Predator 2) and his guest (K Todd Freeman), it’s nevertheless satisfying to see Ricochet invite such conjecture:
Guest: We believe that Nick Styles is the victim of a conspiracy and we know who they are. This insidious group that tears down African American politicians who dares to defy their power. We’re talking of the Rockefellers and their Trilateral Commission who along with the Zionists who have been putting AIDS virus into vending machines all across America.
Host: We’ll be right back.
Washington is particularly compelling when it comes to the confused, unravelling version of Nick (“It’s a fucking conspiracy!”) Elsewhere, he evidently doesn’t want to be spouting terrible lines like “Yeah, I guess a berretta in the butt beats a butterfly in the boot” and “You got the point now, don’t you, Blake” after the latter is impaled in the most OTT manner. I’m trying to recall if this was the instance where the actor demurred from Silver’s request that he say “You can kiss my black ass”. If so, you really can’t blame him (Nick’s line is “Gail, kiss my ass” – Zemeckis’ ex Mary Ellen Trainor returns as Gail Wallens from Die Hard, placing Ricochet in the same movie continuum). Washington reportedly got into super shape for the role, and there’s a persistent feeling he’s slightly embarrassed to be putting himself in such a flagrantly superficial position, what with his locker room posing for Lindsay Wagner and playing best buds with Ice T.
Blake: Will you shut up!
Lithgow can’t put a foot wrong until the screenplay betrays him. Once Nick has been drunkenly inspired by Jimmy Cagney in White Heat, we know inspiration has given way to a finale stuffed with explosions and cheap shots. All it takes for Blake to blow a gasket is believing Nick has killed himself. He promptly dispatches Kim (Josh Evans of Born on the Fourth of July and The Doors) in tediously gratuitous fashion; the former, staked out, lambasts Blake, who blasts away. Evans’ motormouth weasel performance is memorable, a grotesque sycophant spouting a repellent stream of consciousness (“I bet he shits his pants. I can’t wait to take a look”). At one point, he takes Blake to an underground club filled with obese nudists and little person barmen (“Beautiful place, isn’t it?”; “Fucking freakshow” replies Blake). Following Kim’s demise, the remainder of the proceedings consist of Blake yelling “Bastard!” as Nick proceeds to best him.
There are warning signs Ricochet will eventually collapse in upon itself throughout, of course. At the outset, Blake leaps through a window for no good reason other than to get caught. There’s a ludicrous scene later, in which a cleaner manages to walk into a room, plug her hoover in and begin vacuuming before noticing the corpse hanging obtrusively from the ceiling fan.
Doyle: He had to be alive, right? Otherwise, how could he kill me?
I well recall my first viewing of the movie; I sought out anything Silver-produced at that point, mostly due to the two earlier, John McTiernan-helmed efforts. Lithgow’s stock was high, even with Harry and the Hendersons, and I found Ice T a hoot (“Yo, chill officers”). The latter isn’t a sustainable position, but my excuse is that he was new to the thespian arena at that stage, and his limited chops (attitude being everything) were very amusing. Now, the entire redeemed dealer subplot feels faintly patronising and not a little cheesy. Kevin Pollack also warrants a mention, not only for his patented Shatner and Peter Falk impressions, and for bookending the decade with doomed sidekick parts – End of Days being the other – but for one of the more amusing final lines in a movie (above).
Mulcahy struggled during a brief Hollywood window, failing to make good on it the manner of other post-MTV directors. By the end of the decade, he’d be firmly embedded in the straight-to-video realm. Here, his work isn’t very tidy, but he’s full of ideas, making particularly good use of Nick’s subjective state and Lithgow’s psychotic one (he recalled “There were big holes in the original script, so there was a major re-write. Originally, in the opening gunfight, the bullet ricocheted off something, which was why it was called Ricochet. In the re-writes, the title stayed but the story changed”).
Ricochet isn’t a Denzel Washington movie that especially does the rounds now, and one rather wonders if he consciously tried to have it buried, since its gusty crassness was never really his thing. That queasiness of the enterprise makes it more interesting than most of the sequel fare Silver was churning out at that point, though.
First published by Now in Full Color on 24/03/22.