It’s a new year, and time for a new monthly segment at Monkeys Fighting Robots: B-Movie Badassery. In these, we will take a look at some of the biggest, baddest B-movie brilliance in film history, movies that don’t bother with prestige or logic or subtlety, genre movies that float beneath the blockbusters and the award winners of this world. Rather, they perfect and thrive in the realm of the unhinged, the insane, the violent, and the bizarrely entertaining. Not all B movies created equal. Let’s kick things off with one of the greatest B movies of the 90s, Ricochet.
Ricochet is a pure, unhinged, kitchen sink thriller, filled to the brim with violence and aggression, written with madness in mind. The film flies willfully in so many different directions, crazed and taking joy in the depraved world where it wallows. It tells the story of pure virtue facing off against inherent evil, and the black hat polluting the white hat in the name of revenge. It’s a great movie, all things considered, one that would probably never happen today.
Denzel Washington, never more magnetic than he is here, wears the white hat as officer Nick Styles, a squeaky clean law student and beat cop who’s close with his partner Larry (Kevin Pollak), and loyal to his childhood friend, Odessa (Ice T), even though Odessa is heading for a lifelong career of crime. Styles has dreams, ambitions, but so does Earl Talbot Blake, played by John Lithgow at his peak early-90s Lithgow craziness (watch this and Raising Cain and you might want to have Lithgow committed). Blake is as evil and murderous as Styles is pure, and Lithgow is as wonderful in this role as the great character name would suggest. These two men should never cross paths were it not for a botched robbery sending Blake out a window and into the middle of the carnival Styles and Larry are patrolling. Look no further for metaphorical material than here, where the mechanisms of the plot are put into motion in the middle of a busy carnival.
Styles disarms and diffuses Blake in spectacular fashion, after stripping down to his underwear and pulling a gun hidden on his backside. The scene is caught on home video (in those ancient days before camera phones) and makes the nightly news. And just like that, a chance encounter sends these two men hurtling down two opposing paths. Blake is sent off to prison, where his obsession for revenge grows and percolates and drives him. Styles, on the other hand, forgets almost entirely about Blake as his ascent takes him all the way to Assistant District Attorney of Los Angeles. He marries and has two daughters, a suburban home, and the adoration of everyone around him. He even brings along his partner Larry. Blake, on the other hand, is confined to a cell, building his rage, planning his revenge.
And revenge he exacts, in some of the film’s most insanely elaborate sequences. After staging a prison break that is loony in and of itself, Blake fakes his death and returns to the city to begin systematically destroying Styles’ perfect world. Ricochet goes off the rails in this second act, and that’s not a complaint. Because director Russell Mulcahy goes all in. The screenplay from Steven E. de Souza is willfully cynical as Blake murders Stiles’ business partner and frames him with child porn, kidnaps Blake and holds him hostage in an empty pool while injecting him with heroin, and hires a prostitute to film having sex with him while he’s strung out. If that weren’t enough, in a later scene, when Styles’ personal and professional life has begun to dissolve, Blake shows a video of himself in Styles’ daughter’s rooms, therein sending Styles half drunk and groggy to a park where he assaults a clown.
It’s insane. And kind of brilliant in it’s own weird way.
Having clear moral lines between the two central characters is crucial. Ricochet is concerned not with creating doubt, but showing off. Nick Styles must be pure at heart form the get go, and it is crucial Blake be evil personified. These two men must exist on the entire opposite ends of the human spectrum. With any gray area, mystery or moral uncertainty might infect the story, and it would cloud what this film’s true intentions are: thrills.
Ricochet refuses to let up. It never allows for a single moment of second guessing from the audience in regards to the absurdity, so we buy in. Littered with so much craziness, from the prison gladiator battle between Blake and another prisoner (the one and only Jesse Ventura), to the wild crack den firebomb near the end, Ricochet knows only one speed. And in case you’re concerned the film ignores the macho fad of it’s day, fear not, there’s two separate arm-wrestling scenes. By the time we arrive at the final showdown at Watts Towers, splayed with violence and brutality, we’re exhausted. This is the sort of picture than would never wrangle in talents like Washington and Lithgow these days; it probably would never be made no matter who was involved, because it thrives on cynicism and borders on exploitative violence. But these seemingly negative descriptors are why the film absolutely works.