In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1991 (the extra in this month’s double-feature column) and six from 2001. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
In America’s action arena from 1985 to 1995, there was producer Joel Silver and (with few exceptions) those who sought to be Silver — a Jewish kid from Jersey who erected his empire of excitement by buddying up to bankable stars, beating back the blusteriest egos and blowing up the biggest buildings.
Silver got his break producing 48 Hrs. in 1981 and served the same capacity on future Walter Hill films until striking out on his own with Silver Pictures in 1985. Soon, Silver was slapping the backs of Planet Hollywood’s holy trinity, shepherding action all-timers like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, holding space for high-concept (Demolition Man) and no-concept (Road House), and moving forth undeterred by failed attempts to make movie stars out of Andrew Dice Clay and Cindy Crawford. He also cultivated such an ostentatiously obstreperous presence as a bellowing blowhard that he lampooned it onscreen during the 1980s, as tempestuous Raoul J. Raoul in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; Silver also inspired Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder, along with characters in Grand Canyon and True Romance.
Beyond his heyday, Silver’s stamp remains. He championed big-thinking visionaries like Lana and Lilly Wachowski (the Matrix franchise, Speed Racer), successfully pivoted into B-horror remakes like House of Wax or House on Haunted Hill at his Dark Castle subsidiary alongside Robert Zemeckis, made the world wonder if DMX was an action star with a one-two punch of Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave, gifted the world with The Nice Guys in 2016, and even played in resurrected IP sandboxes with Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes franchise.
Silver hasn’t had a major hit since the second Sherlock sequel, and speculation is that his box-office dry spell, aggressive personality and spendthrift joie de vivre prompted his 2019 resignation from his namesake company. But for years, the Chip — as the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired company logo became known — conferred a cachet of action authority like few others. This year’s double-feature edition of Class of … looks at a pair of films from October 1991 — one in which Silver swerved into something slightly different than his usual and one of the more credible, and criminally underseen, imitators of Silver’s formula to sprout in his wake.
Ricochet still boasts considerable gunplay and fisticuffs, a city-block detonation, a giant metal spike on which someone is impaled and … gen-pop prison swordplay in which Jesse Ventura tapes phone books to his torso. But as more of a nasty psychological thriller than blowed-up-good spectacle, it could conceivably pass itself off as an arthouse release from Silver Pictures. Sandwiched on the shingle’s schedule between duelling Bruce Willis ego trips (Hudson Hawk and The Last Boy Scout), Ricochet derives palpable pleasures from pitting Denzel Washington’s magnetism against John Lithgow’s menace. In a scene where the two arm-wrestle, you can feel the table groaning under the collective weight of their charisma. Although Ricochet plays out as the quintessential irresistible force meets immovable object moviemaking you’d expect from those names, it wasn’t the guaranteed hit Silver specialized in by that point.
First off, Washington and Lithgow were not immensely bankable stars. Washington had an Oscar by then for 1989’s Glory but not much box-office clout and hadn’t yet tested his leading-man mettle in the action realm; it would be many years before he became an emeritus presence in that space. As for Lithgow, he had largely laid low from big-time releases since 1987’s Harry & the Hendersons and hadn’t played a villain at all since 1985’s Santa Claus: The Movie, a lump of coal large enough to perish the thought for several seasons. Ricochet also offers the first, and likely only, opening-credits transition from “John Lithgow” to “Ice-T,” hot off New Jack City earlier in the year but hardly the third leg of the stool as a box-office draw.
It’s also a quite scuzzier narrative than Silver’s usual, popped forth from the purposefully poisonous pen of Fred Dekker, who had previously directed and co-wrote 1987’s The Monster Squad. Dekker originally pitched Ricochet as a Harry Callahan sequel, but Clint Eastwood allegedly found it too grim. Action scribe extraordinaire Steven E. de Souza (who’d worked with Silver on 48 Hrs., Commando and the first two Die Hards, among others) changed up Dekker’s initial script enough to get a final script credit, with Dekker and sometime-Spielberg collaborator Menno Meyjes splitting a story credit.
At no point during its development did Ricochet lose a litany of wincingly vile and psychosexual lines for Lithgow to spit. Even for a guy you know can do bad quite well, you’ll wince at his fantasized fate for a family dog. With his zipper-like red hair, Lithgow resembles Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story if Farkus were left to fend for himself in a merciless state system. (And yes, he even has a Grover Dill here in the form of a sycophantic, motor-mouthed criminal assistant.)
Bullets sound like walloped leather as they rip open many fleshy bodies in Ricochet. A White Power idiot takes a shotgun to the face so as to deny dental identification on the body. And the center of the plot involves the elaborate extremes to which Lithgow’s bad guy will go to eradicate Washington’s hero and everything for which he stands — a succinct but sinister weeklong timetable that involves implications of fraud and pedophilia, indications of drug abuse, an awfully airtight frame for a murder … and even giving Washington the clap! (“I fought her with every inch of my body,” Washington’s character tells his shell-shocked wife, who retorts: “Well, if you managed to get the clap, I can think of several inches that didn’t put up a fight.”)
Hearing composer Alan Silvestri channel Bernard Herrmann for the main themes of something so junky is kind of perfect, though. Plus, director Russell Mulcahy — who had Highlander II: The Quickening looming like a punch-bowl turd just weeks later — knows enough to shoot this thing stylishly and get out of the way of his leading men. By the time they grapple high above L.A.’s urban decay, you’re fully invested in this silly clash of the titans — both of whose physiques were sculpted for this by Keith Cubba, the trainer who whipped a Moonlighting-era Bruce Willis into shape for Die Hard.
The film begins in 1984, as hotshot cop Nick Styles (Washington) keeps ambitious hitman Earl Talbot Blake (Lithgow) from turning a family carnival into a charnel house. Styles gets the job done by stripping to his skivvies, distracting Blake enough to kneecap him with a hidden handgun. (“Guess a Beretta in the butt beats a butterfly in the boot, huh?” Styles quips.)
Caught on tape, Styles’ heroics propel his career; at one point, he even shares a cover of People with Princess Diana! Eventually, Styles becomes an assistant district attorney so good that defense attorneys literally crumple their closing arguments in his wake. His accolades and accomplishments have also drawn the ire of Odessa (Ice-T), Styles’s one-time friend who has made his own name for himself as a drug kingpin.
Meanwhile, Blake has torn countless cellmates’ jackoff material off prison walls, murdered a few goons inside (like the one Ventura plays) and developed an obsession for someday exacting his revenge on Styles. After exploiting some Aryan Brotherhood idiocy for an escape and faking his death, Blake sets out on his odyssey to destroy Styles.
Largely powered by Lithgow’s kettle-whistle performance, Ricochet accumulates a feral energy and moral grime that runs counter to Silver’s usual slick action and often righteously dispensed justice. In the absence of big setpieces, it evolves into an unexpectedly incisive satire on America’s preferred cycles of triumph and teardowns for its famous faces. That people would immediately believe the allegations of perversion against a bloc of Black civic influencers is hardly an accident, either. Even before Styles’s eventual drunken ramblings on the phone to a radio talk-show host — delivered in a sad pink bathrobe, white socks and brown slippers at his lowest point — you sense the ridiculousness (and fruitlessness) in the real obstacles Styles and company are trying to clear.
As with several other Silver Pictures productions, Ricochet also functions as an elbow to the rib of a riled-up media that made and may break Styles. (And if you really want to go down a Silver-adjacent rabbit hole, check out how the presence of actress Mary Ellen Trainor as the same character she played in Die Hard perpetuates the Val Verde Cinematic Universe while John Amos playing a different character than he did in Die Hard 2 breaks it.) But as Styles abandons all of his “monotonous honesty,” as an eventually helpful Odessa calls it, to provide what reporters call “violent and incontestable proof of his innocence,” the jab feels more like a jape than a jeremiad. Silver loved the media and the attention it afforded him. How else could one of his lower-budgeted films still scrape up $20 million and change at the box office?
Three years earlier, that same media helped make Silver’s Die Hard an unexpected juggernaut — a creative and commercial monolith that has, for 33 years, spawned all manner of “one man, many terrorist” narratives. After the immediately green-lit Die Hard 2, one of the first was journeyman filmmaker Sidney J. Furie’s The Taking of Beverly Hills. It landed in 541 theaters just one week after Ricochet with a price tag of $19 million, a disastrous opening to about 2.4% of that budget, and a total gross of less than $1 million.
Furie had forged a career of for-hire success with films like 1965’s spy thriller The Ipcress File, the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, the 1982 horror outing The Entity (which Martin Scorsese has cited as one of his favorite scary movies), and Iron Eagle, which beat Top Gun’s rah-rah aerial action to the punch by several months in 1986.
By 1989, though, Furie was damaged goods. He was left holding the bag by the notorious Cannon Films for the folly that became Superman IV: The Quest for Peace despite Furie’s disavowal of a final product taken from his hands in the editing room. So it was with that L hung on him that Furie pitched financiers on Taking, an idea he developed alongside writers with whom he’d previously collaborated. As every studio obviously wanted its own Die Hard, Columbia Pictures picked up the project and slated it for a prime May 1991 release before several unexpected months of delays and a barely advertised theatrical dump. Outside of the Rodney Dangerfield movie Ladybugs, Furie landed on the straight-to-VHS, DVD and / or VOD circuit after that. (He’s still alive, but his last credit was 2014’s The Dependables, an old-person spin on The Expendables, which … yeesh.)
Unless you were a rent-everything nerd from the 1990s prone to thousands of words about action movies, you’ve probably never even heard of The Taking of Beverly Hills let alone seen it. Were you to ever stumble upon it from the start, you’d be forgiven for lasting about as long as the film did in theaters. There’s a goofy opening voiceover there to string together the words “Beverly Hills cop” as subliminal suggestion, an opening-credits sequence with Beverly Hills exteriors so endless it feels like a Chamber of Commerce production, what’s best described as a rollerblader’s interpretive dance, and a what-is-this nonchalance to its entire introductory act.
Stick with it, though, and you’ll find practical-effect pyrotechnics not unlike the destruction of Invasion U.S.A. (one of few Chuck Norris films worth savoring today), as well as a reasonable replication of the Die Hard formula well before it became the Hollywood default. To reference the directors that took on Die Hard under Silver’s stewardship, The Taking of Beverly Hills comes off like minor-league John McTiernan or Renny Harlin with about half the heft.
Also, well before Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Steven Seagal, Dwayne Johnson and so many more tried their hand at such things, Furie even had his own TV star to bring to the fore a la Bruce Willis in Ken Wahl, a burly actor made mostly of chest and beaver pelt-ish mullet best known for his starring role on Wiseguy. He plays Boomer Hayes, an aging quarterback for a fictitious Los Angeles football team who unexpectedly has to foil a robbery plot that would raise Hans Gruber’s eyebrow. (The football angle here also recalls Silver’s own The Last Boy Scout, which would land a couple months later in December.)
Boomer is perhaps cinema’s only action hero ever mistaken for a dog because of his name. And although 33 at the time of filming, Wahl lumbers through this movie like a gored bull lucky to take down one more toreador before it falls. Part of that is because Boomer saved his team from the jaws of defeat in a rough game earlier that day and must inject cortisone into his ankle to even move around. It’s also because of Wahl’s real-life injuries, which by that point included a motorcycle crash that required 89 scalp stitches and a torn Achilles tendon suffered during the second season of Wiseguy. While you lament Wahl’s physical limitations, they are a strangely perfect fit for this story.
Boomer and a contrite cop named Kelvin (Matt Frewer, then best known as futuristic Coke pitchman Max Headroom) are the only ones who can save the city from the clutches of avaricious asthmatic asshole Bat Masterson, who owns Boomer’s football team. The cast’s most famous, and malevolently pockmarked, face, Robert Davi plays Masterson. Davi had popped up all over the 1980s from TV series like The A-Team and T.J. Hooker to films like The Goonies, the 007 film Licence to Kill and, yes, Die Hard itself as the FBI agent nicknamed “Big Johnson.” Like Hans Gruber, Masterson masterminds a city-clearing incident under a pretext of common thievery. But his plan is way weirder, extending to blackmail that would see him assume a board-chairman position at an insurance company as well as marriage to the CEO’s daughter, Laura (Harley Jane Kozak), on whom Boomer also has designs.
So many disparate elements swirl through Taking that you don’t entirely know where it’s headed until, almost on supernatural cue, one of Bat’s lackeys yells “Take it!” and sets the plot in motion. It’s accompanied by a 12-inch dance remix of EMF’s once-ubiquitous “Unbelievable,” the first of several unexpectedly recognizable needle-drops from the era. (Better these, certainly, than too much more of a Jan Hammer score that sounds like a particularly dark Warrant or Firehouse tune.) Boomer and Kelvin’s evasion of a truck-mounted flamethrower is accompanied by Janet Jackson’s guitar-licked “Black Cat.” Then, in one of the decade’s more underrated bits of soundtrack ownage, Faith No More’s “Epic” underscores Boomer’s hero run as he’s LOBBING NINJA STARS AT PEOPLE AND CARS that explode afterward in a reverie of awesome action. At one point, Boomer lobs a literal long bomb into a truck and yes, there are enough sports entendres here to make Dennis Rodman’s remarks in Double Team seem quaint; “I am a master at moving downfield and they don’t even know I’m in the game!”
Furie and company at least earn those puns by making Taking feel like one long, grueling gridiron campaign for Boomer and Kelvin — the latter like a scared offensive lineman trying to guard his quarterback’s ill-advised scramble for the end zone. Hilariously outmanned, Boomer calls plenty of audibles as they scamper and scurry through town with largely improvised weapons. (Indeed, Boomer’s ineptitude with a gun is one of the movie’s funniest bits.)
Whether they are torching entire lots of luxury cars, trampling tiny sedans with tactical vehicles or detonating tankers, Furie and company deliver truly impressive endangerment. His biggest compadres are the stunt team (led by still-kicking industry veteran Jack Gill) and visual-effects coordinator Thomas L. Fisher, who worked with James Cameron on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies and Titanic. No slouches here, they create gloriously gnarly work that feels more reckless than it might have under strict big-budget studio supervision. It feels like the filmmakers found a weapons-grade military surplus salesman who wasn’t quite on the level and met his annual quota with a wad of cash under the table. Built on a Mexico set, the Beverly Hills facades are essentially leveled by the time the movie’s over, and there is one mind-blowing shot that feels like Wahl and Frewer actually running from an exploding car crashing into a window behind them.
With its solid hour of colossal chaos, Taking places a believable bronze behind Silver Pictures. Too bad its last act that feels like a fireworks display without a finale ultimo. Taking spends most of the movie setting you up for a big-boss throwdown between Boomer and right-hand man Benitez (Branscombe Richmond). But their eventual clash is like if John McClane conked Karl once and that was that. And although there are some nice eat-the-rich jokes a la Silver — the Beverly Hills fat cats partying it up at a Century City hotel, evacuated ahead of all the destruction — it’s missing a capper of them returning home to find the gaping maws where their shops and estates once stood.
Out of print for many years until Kino Lorber rescued it for Blu-ray release in 2018, The Taking of Beverly Hills definitely benefits from an immaculate widescreen presentation very few saw until now. Given its comparatively second-tier bonafides, this was always going to be on the outside looking in compared to something from Silver Pictures. At least it pounds its palms on the pane with some persuasive force that maybe, just maybe, might have gotten Joel Silver to look. Silver would have never let something this woolly out into the wild, but you can almost envision him watching it and muttering “not bad” before inking his next megamillion-dollar deal with Warner Brothers.