I think I saw this movie back when it came out and I remember it just being ridiculous, but seeing it again I thought it was a good ridiculous. The movie begins with a melodramatic Hitchcock style credit sequence, but then cuts straight to Denzel Washington, Ice-T and Kevin Pollack playing very aggressive basketball on a playground. As far as I know this one is one of only a handful of movies in all of cinematic history that begin with those three guys playing street ball.
I like this scene because it very quickly sets up most of the major players in the movie while also establishing just why the movie is cool. For one thing, the director is Russell RAZORBACK Mulcahy, video director turned movie director who is fond of fancy hotshot camerawork. But this is 1991, still firmly in the naive days when a director followed a code of honor that they were expected to provide visual clues to the audience to understand what the fuck is going on. For some of you younger individuals it’s probaly hard to imagine, but the camera is flying around in such a way that it enhances your enjoyment of the movie, instead of pissing you off. This starts in the basketball scene with the camera somehow following right behind Denzel as he weaves through the other players and slam dunks.
In this one scene we learn that Denzel is a cop and law school student, Pollack is his partner, Ice-T is a childhood friend who he is distancing himself from because he’s a criminal, and Victoria Dillard is a girl Denzel has his eye on (who will become his wife). More importantly though what this scene establishes is that this is young, arrogant, show-offy, charming Denzel. It’s after MO’ BETTER BLUES but before MALCOLM X, so he’s got the chops but not the expectations. And he’s applying that talent to a character in an over-the-top b-movie thriller. His character is named Nick Styles, if that gives you an idea.
The one major player missing from the b-ball scene is John Lithgow as the villain, a psychopathic hitman. Styles happens to run into him in the middle of a crime at a carnival, and he apprehends him in a rather show offy manner (in his underwear and in front of TV cameras). So Lithgow goes to jail and Styles makes a name for himself. While Lithgow is in the joint Styles becomes assistant D.A., gets a family and starts working toward building a children’s center to help other kids from bad neighborhoods become successful like him.
Lithgow in my opinion does not make constructive use of his time in the can. Instead he cuts out pictures of Styles and plasters them all over his wall. He spends all his time planning his revenge. They even got a bookmobile that comes to this prison but the motherfucker doesn’t get the hint. Just sits around with a bunch of negativity. I mean if I were him I would at least take a couple days off to read books even if I was gonna spend most of the time on planning revenge. It’s just not healthy. just my 2 cents.
Lithgow is real good at playing these over-the-top villains. The year after this he’d do CLIFFHANGER and the year after that RAISING CAIN (Lithgow’s MALCOLM X). Motherfucker has ludicrousness running through his veins. But I tell it like it is so I do have to point out a cheat they did in establishing how tough he is. His cellmate is Jesse Ventura, and as soon as he’s introduced to him he calls him a fruitcake or a creampuff or something like that and bashes his head into the toilet. Then it cuts to a little later and the two are in gladiatorial combat wearing armor made of phone books and duct tape. This is not a sport I have witnessed before, but it’s a good idea. Anyway, he beats Ventura again. Now, I can understand a movie where a guy takes on a much more menacing opponent, but through some sort of outsmarting or unexpectedly superior martial arts skill or something they manage to beat them, and this wakes up the other characters to this underdog’s overdog status. But really they do nothing to convince me that Lithgow could kick Jesse the Body’s ass. They just have him do it and that’s supposed to be enough. I will accept every other absurd aspect of this movie, but this one is too much.
Anyway eventually Lithgow gets out and enacts his plan of revenge. He doesn’t want to kill him, he wants to “kill his life” and “fuck his mind.” So this is where the movie is most enjoyably silly. He enacts a complex plan to ruin his life and I won’t give it all away but it involves framing his friend as a child molester, making him look corrupt, kidnapping him, shooting him up with drugs, forcing him to screw a hooker on video, then letting him go and making it look like he’s making all this shit up when he tries to tell everybody about it. It gets so bad it actually starts to be kind of painful to watch, you almost want to skip to Styles getting the upper hand again because it’s so grueling what humiliation he has to go through.
But what makes it great is Denzel’s performance. The script to this movie is fun enough that it would work with Michael Jai White or somebody in the lead, but with a great thespian like Denzel (and when he’s still young and hungry) it’s kind of a b-movie miracle. As things get worse he does seem to get a little crazy and he does a great talking to himself monologue as well as an incredibly uncomfortable rant to the D.A. trying to explain what’s going on but sounding like a total nutball. And just as a little pre-MALCOLM X treat he gets one scene that’s closer to the righteous persona Denzel is known for, when he storms into Ice-T’s gang hideout and lectures them all about staying away from the children’s center.
In a weird cartoon kind of way RICOCHET sort of says something about black-white relations in 1991. Styles is a black man who pulls himself up by those bootstraps you always hear about, and he becomes a great success and public figure. But the media is so happy and quick to believe that he’s corrupt, that he’s a junkie, that he cheats on his wife. So it speaks to the paranoia of white people and of black people. This is a year after Washington DC mayor Marion Barry was disgraced for smoking crack and a year before he was elected to city council anyway.
There’s a scene where a black man on TV talks crazily about a conspiracy with white people putting AIDS in vending machines, and this is one white view of Black America: a bunch of crazy conspiracy theorists thinking white people are out to get them. In other words, white people are paranoid about black paranoia. But in Styles’s case it’s actually true: there actually is a conspiracy against him, executed in part by a white supremacist prison gang. (This leads to the enjoyable sight of Denzel beating up some bigots.) And the only way for Styles to overcome this conspiracy is for two sides of his community to come together: his side and Ice-T’s side. Styles is right to try to follow the straight and narrow but Ice-T is right that the system is broken and luckily is able to use his gangster super powers to help his former friend. And by doing this they repair their relationship and will hopefully change things for both of them.
One thing that happens in alot of movies but that I think is not true to life is that he clears everything up by getting it captured on tape by news cameras. It’s gotta be a coincidence, but this came out 7 months after the Rodney King beating was captured on tape, and about 6 months before the cops who beat him were acquitted. So during that period it made more sense to believe that videotaped evidence would mean justice. These days I don’t really buy it. They would show that shit on cable news and still figure out a way to make Styles look bad.
The pulp credentials behind this one are pretty solid. You got Joel Silver producing, Mulcahy directing and a screenplay by Steven E. De Souza who’s always known as the guy who wrote DIE HARD but is also, let’s face it, the guy who directed STREET FIGHTER: THE MOVIE and wrote KNOCK OFF and various other crazy shit. And then credited with the story are Fred Dekker (people love him for directing MONSTER SQUAD and NIGHT OF THE CREEPS but I’ve only seen ROBOCOP 3 so I can’t get behind this individual) and a guy named Menno Meyjes, who wrote THE COLOR PURPLE, was one of the writers on INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE and recently directed that movie THE MARTIAN CHILD. So kind of a weird guy to be involved.
Anyway this is a real gem, full of the absurdity and energy that can make a movie like this special, and with the unique treat of a great performance by Washington. Ice-T’s acting is not as impressive but I bet he is proud to be in this one and he provides a pretty good end credits rap theme song. This is definitely one I will be recommending to many people.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.