The Best Movie You Never Saw: Ricochet

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at RICOCHET!

THE STORY: A rookie LAPD officer (Denzel Washington) becomes public hero when he rescues a hostage from a vicious psycho (John Lithgow) on live TV. Years later, that same psycho escapes prison and vows to destroy his former adversary, ripping his life apart piece-by-piece.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Denzel Washington, John Lithgow, Kevin Pollak, Ice-T. Music by Alan Silvestri. Directed by Russell Mulcahy.

THE HISTORY: Denzel Washington was in a very different place back in 1991. While he had already won an Oscar for GLORY, he was far from the household name he’d become, and Hollywood, at the time, tried him out in various kinds of vehicles, even going so far as to cast him in a comedy, 1990’s HEART CONDITION, that was so bad Washington fired his agent and arguably hasn’t done a legit comedy since. RICOCHET was another attempt by Washington to break out into mainstream stardom, and his first action role.

There were big holes in the original script, so there was a major re-write. Originally, in the opening gunfight, the bullet ricochet off something, which was why it was called RICOCHET. In the re-writes, the title stayed but the story changed. As far as making the film went, it was fabulous. Denzel is an extraordinary human being, and always totally in the part. We did a lot of scenes where he was drugged up, beaten up and disgraced and whatever, and I remember on a Friday night I would say to him ''Denzel, don't take this home with you!'' John Lithgow was brilliant. He was playing this evil villain but once you called ''Cut!'', he'd start talking about some baseball game or something he was doing at his college. He could just switch in and out of character- Russell MulcahyMoney into Light Interview

A major flop, only grossing a piddling $4.1 million, Washington, perhaps wisely, turned his focus to drama afterward, delivering two of his best-ever performances virtually back-to-back with MALCOLM X and PHILADELPHIA, with THE PELICAN BRIEF sandwiched in-between. All three movies were hits, and made Washington the star this movie didn’t. However, that wasn’t the last word on Denzel as an action star, although it took a few more failed vehicles, like VIRTUOSITY and THE SIEGE, before he really hit his stride with MAN ON FIRE. Now, he’s arguably the most bankable action hero in Hollywood, while also simultaneously the town’s most respected dramatic actor (rivaled only by Daniel Day-Lewis).

Had it starred anyone else, RICOCHET would have probably been forgotten, but Washington’s involvement has made it a major curio for fans (dubbed “Denzealots” by the great “Denzel Washington is the Greatest Living Actor of All Time PERIOD” podcast), and it’s a movie that holds up a lot better than many of his early star roles.

WHY IT'S GREAT: RICOCHET is a fun product of its time. Back in the late eighties/early nineties, huge, hardcore R-rated action flicks were all the rage. This was the heyday of Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, and – in the larger films – Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Sadly, black action heroes weren’t given much representation until Wesley Snipes came along, although producer Joel Silver tried to launch a franchise with ACTION JACKSON, starring Carl Weathers, and is also the man behind RICOCHET.

Denzel Washington is a super-action hero now, but back in the early nineties he was more of a heartthrob, so the heroics are toned-down a bit, making it a movie that’s actually aged better than some of its contemporaries, with stylish direction from HIGHLANDER’s Russell Mulcahy. Washington’s character, a rookie LAPD officer, is no superman. He’s just a guy trying to do right by his family and friends, and as such he’s not given an army of bad guys to demolish. Rather, the tension comes from the cat and mouse between him and John Lithgow, who chews the scenery with aplomb in his first big villain role.

It was the first of two times I worked with Denzel [Washington], who’s really one of our great actors. People give him great credit for being a major international sexy movie leading man, but he’s also a terrific character actor. I mean, he goes back to theater regularly, and he really plunges into different characters with a real courage and skill. So it was really fun working with him on that. And you really had to be working with someone who was willing to go the whole way. It’s a huge film for African-Americans. When I meet them on the subway platform or something, it’s always, “Oh, I loved you in Ricochet!” And I say, “You were supposed to hate me in Ricochet!” [Laughs.] – John LithgowRandom Roles Interview

A two-hander, Washington and Lithgow are compelling to watch as they go head-to-head, as they seem evenly matched, which is something as with a few exceptions (Tom Hanks in PHILADELPHIA, Gene Hackman in CRIMSON TIDE, Viola Davis in FENCES and Dakota Fanning in MAN OF FIRE) Denzel tends to blow his co-stars off the screen. Lithgow’s even intimidating on a physical level in this one, with some brutal prison fight scenes, including a weird HIGHLANDER-style sword battle with books used as armor. Next to Lithgow’s merciless scenery chewing, Washington plays it a little more low-key, but makes for a smooth hero. He’s believable as the kind of guy whose charm and heroism would propel him through the ranks of the LAPD and into a prestigious law career. He has that brainy quality, as well as brawn (Denzel was jacked in this one!).

Mulcahy gives this a propulsive pace, helped along by a memorably tense score by Alan Silverstri. Given the era, the action beats are hugely over-the-top, with the finale a bat-shit crazy fight on a satellite tower, but it works given the heightened reality they establish. RICOCHET isn’t the best movie of its era, nor even A-grade action, but it does a lot of things really well, and had this been a hit Washington’s action stardom might have started a decade early.

BEST SCENE: If RICOCHET were made today, I bet Washington and Lithgow could still pull off their roles, but one thing’s for sure – it would never be as hardcore violent as it was in 1991. Given that it’s a Joel Silver production, Mulcahy ramps the ultra-violence up to eleven, with this big breakout sequence, where Lithgow’s cronies go to work on prison guards with power tools, a prime example. It’s almost too much, but scenes like these help establish real menace, which is something action movies nowadays don’t really manage to do.



SEE IT: This is the problem with RICOCHET – it’s not the easiest movie to track down. It’s available on DVD, but only in a really bad transfer, although it’s out on Blu-ray in other regions and there are HD versions of it floating around out there. I believe HBO owns the film rights (dating back to a brief run they had as a theatrical distributor), so hopefully they give it an upgrade or at least release it on streaming soon.

PARTING SHOT: RICOCHET is a bit of an undiscovered gem in Washington’s catalog. It’s a neat look at what a young Denzel might have been like as an action hero, before really hitting his stride. It’s holds up and still works really well, and it’s fun to see Washington and Lithgow go toe-to-toe.




About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.