It was 1991, and Denzel Washington was a rising movie star. He’d won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in 1989’s GLORY, but he still wasn’t quite the A-lister he would later become yet. But this feels like it was the first attempt at turning him into a real blockbuster leading man.

Written by Steven E. de Souza, Fred Dekker, and Menno Meyjes, and directed by Russell Mulcahy, Ricochet stars Denzel as Nick Styles. When the film opens he’s an LAPD police officer who’s also going to law school. Born and raised in South Los Angeles, his father was a reverend, and the childhood friends he still has call him “P.K.” for “preacher’s kid.” Ice T, following up his major acting debut in New Jack City that same year appears here in a smaller but crucial supporting role as Odessa, a childhood friend of Nick’s who has grown up to become a major drug dealer in their old neighborhood.

One night Nick ends up at a carnival, responding to a shootout where a gunman has taken an innocent girl hostage. Nick offers to let himself take the girl’s place as the hostage, throws down his gun, and strips down to his underwear to prove that he’s unarmed.

When the gunman lets the girl go, Nick quickly pulls a smaller gun out of his jockstrap and shoots and wounds him. This dramatic standoff and arrest is captured on video by a bystander, and gets played on the TV news, turning Nick into a local hero, and gets him promoted to Detective.

John Lithgow plays the gunman, Earl Talbot Blake, in what may be his first truly villainous role (he’d been a “bad guy” before, like his character in Footloose, but he was evil here). Earl is a ruthless but brilliant sociopath. And when he gets arrested, he immediately becomes fixated on Nick, vowing revenge.

The film then jumps ahead 8 years, Nick has become an Assistant District Attorney and is happily married with 2 young daughters. We see him prosecuting a high-profile criminal case, and his success just raises his profile further, with many speculating that he’ll one day run for Governor of California.  During that same time Earl has been in jail, where he’s become the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood. Josh Evans plays Kim, who was Earl’s accomplice and main henchman in prison. When he gets paroled he helps stage a violent breakout to get Earl out of prison and fake his death in the process. And thus the two of them begin their plan of revenge against Nick.

But this plan isn’t to simply kill or physically harm Nick, he wants to ruin his life. The details of how Earl carries out this mission are somewhat implausible, but nevertheless effective. By the time he’s through the public thinks Nick is an embezzling crazy man who cheats on his wife with prostitutes. And when Nick tries to fight back, things get even worse.

Without spoiling the ending, let’s just say the final confrontation is thrilling and explosive.

Not a huge commercial or critical hit, I always enjoyed this film, and thought it deserves more recognition. And that’s largely due to the compelling performances of Washington and Lithgow.

Both actors brought their A-game to their roles. Denzel showed that he had what it takes to be an action star, and Lithgow was a frightening menace. Other notable standouts are Kevin Pollack as Nick’s partner Larry Doyle, the Bionic Woman herself Lindsey Wagner as the District Attorney and Nick’s eventual boss, and Victoria Dillard as Nick’s wife Alice. This is in addition to the aforementioned Ice T, who takes what could have been a one-note role as a drug dealer but manages to show a different side to him which showcases his acting range, and Josh Evans who is probably unintentionally hilarious at times as Earl’s sycophantic henchman.

I’m honestly not sure why this film didn’t work at the time? Perhaps audiences weren’t sure if this was a revenge action movie or a psychological thriller, and maybe it should have leaned more heavily into one genre or the other? Well, I still think it’s worth checking out if you haven’t seen it.

Chacebook rating: FOUR STARS


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