Released in 1987
Directed by Richard Donner
Screenplay by Shane Black
Tag: "Two Cops. Glover carries a weapon..... Gibson is one"
Mel Gibson (Martin Riggs)
Danny Glover (Roger Murtaugh)
Gary Busey (Mr. Joshua)
Mitch Ryan (General Peter McAllister)
What can I say about Lethal Weapon that isn't already obvious? Is there an original angle to take? Should I try to be objective and talk about Lethal Weapon as a serious action movie which influenced the genre heavily, or should I take advantage of the years that have passed since it was made in order to take it to pieces in a humourous and cruel way? So many choices. Let's see how we go.
Lethal Weapon came out in 1987, when I hadn't even started listening to the Cure and was still wearing velcro sneakers. I was just starting to get acquainted with the idea that I had emotions and hormones, particularly testosterone. I was stretching out of my clothes and looking at girls. I was punching my wardrobe door and wondering why I didn't like my friends any more.
Enter Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs, the suicidal cop. Lethal Weapon was a pretty decent movie with a reasonable plot and some good action, but let's face it, nobody was really watching it for Danny Glover. The reason it became so popular is because it was still 1987 and no one had had time to get tired of Mel Gibson's "My wife just died and I don't care if I live or die, but I do want to KICK ASS" act. We all thought he was incredibly cool, hard as nails and emotional too. Remember that scene where he's sitting in his trailer alone, drinking himself stupid and crying over his wife's picture, and he sticks his pistol in his mouth? Of course because it's the beginning of the movie you know that he isn't going to do it, but wow, the pathos. This guy is a dedicated, focused cop who doesn't care if he lives or dies, a wonderful if implausible psychological makeup. When a drug dealer takes him hostage he shouts "Shoot me! Shoot me!" until the guy gets so flustered that Mel can get free and kick his ass. He climbs on to a building roof to talk down a suicidal businessman, and ends up cuffing him and jumping off with him on to the waiting bouncy target that the police have set up below. The he kicks his ass. Well, no he doesn't, I made that up. But I bet he wanted to. My teenage hormones and Mel's crazy ass-kicking were a perfect match.
Now we have Danny Glover as Roger Murtaugh, a nice peaceful sergeant who just wants to retire gracefully, until he gets partnered with Mad Max, whose wife was killed by bikers and is out for revenge. Sorry, wrong movie, I meant, Mad William, whose wife was killed by the English and is out for revenge. Oops, wrong again! I'm really losing it here. Obviously I mean Mad Martin Riggs, whose wife basically just died and who wants a kind of non-specific revenge on bad guys everywhere. Riggs is known for having this suicidal streak, and his superiors in the force suspect him of trying to con his way into a disability pension, so instead of withdrawing him from active duty they (of course) partner him with a cop close to retirement and send him out to investigate a bizarre suicide/homicide in which a young prostitute skydives from her apartment in spectacular fashion. Murtaugh quickly finds out that not only is Riggs suicidal, but he's some kind of super-soldier ex-assassin who killed lots of people in Vietnam with his mad jiu jitsu skillz and his pinpoint accuracy with all types of guns. Cue the famous line: "I guess we'll have to register you as a lethal weapon." They take an instant dislike to each other.
Murtaugh quickly finds out Riggs isn't faking his suicidal urges when he dares him to shoot himself, and Riggs actually does it. Or nearly does. Murtaugh blocks the hammer with his finger just in time. Of course, instead of doing what any sensible cop would do (report the incident and get Riggs withdrawn from active service and given proper psychiatric treatment) he goes crimebusting with him. After all, he may be suicidal, but as long as there are bad guys to kill he isn't going to do himself in. Maybe Murtaugh makes a clinical assessment that as long as all that anger and death is projected outwards at the right target, everything will be ok. And because this is Hollywood, everything is.
Cue the bad guys. Because Riggs and Murtaugh are (inevitably) going to kill them all, with no exceptions, because that's the way these films work, they have to be really, really bad, with no ambiguity. Remember Die Hard, with the stone cold ruthless European mercenaries? These guys are just as bad. They're all ex-military, but BAD ex-military, the kind that used to cut the ears off the Viet Cong and hang them around their necks, rather than just knock them off from a distance like good old Riggs. ANd they're dealing heroin, which as everyone knows is the worst drug in the world. If Satan dealt an illegal drug, it would be heroin, never mind the fact that Satan found something much better, and legal to boot - alcohol. But I digress.
It would be tedious to reveal the ins and outs of the plot, except to say that it involves every element of what makes a great action film. There are guns and bombs and helicopters and kidnappings. There are psychos who burn their forearms with lighters, mad kung fu fights, car chases, foot chases, torture scenes and heroic rescuings. Some of the action is plausible and believable, and some of it is highly implausible, and many questions are left unanswered (for example, why, when Murtaugh's daughter is being chased in a car by a helicopter, does she abandon the car and start running on foot? And why does "Mr Joshua" the bad guy leave the unimaginably dangerous Riggs alone with his tiny little torturer? And why do all the cops on the scene at the end allow Riggs to fight "Mr Joshua" alone, when he nearly gets himself killed? Oh, because Murtaugh told them to. He'd read the script and he knew it was all going to turn out all right.)
Because Mel Gibson's crazy act is quite exciting, and because the script is okay, and because Danny Glover makes being a big, mumbling, helpless, burned out cop look kind of cool, Lethal Weapon made shitloads of money and spawned dozens of imitations and three sequels of steadily declining quality. People talked about the "spark" between Glover and Gibson that made the movie work so well, and it's true - Glover doesn't allow Mel to steal the show, something which he obviously resented as he has steered his career since then towards single-lead, please-give-me-an-Oscar roles. Garey Busey is pretty good in the one role he seems able to play convincingly - Really Evil Guy - and everyone else stays in the background where they belong, or sprawled on the ground with bullet holes in them, or screaming frantically to be rescued. If you liked Die Hard (and, back then, who didn't?) then you probably liked this. Lethal Weapon hasn't dated that badly, and if you added a trendy rap-metal or techno soundtrack and some younger faces, people would probably pay to go see it today, and think it was better than xXx or Mission: Impossible II.
You've probably never heard of Richard Donner, the director, but he has an impressive number of well-known films to his credit, including The Omen, Superman, The Goonies and Conspiracy Theory. People like Richard are almost more important than the Stanley Kubricks of this world. Everyone knows who Kubrick is, but his movies only affect a small minority of intellectual people, whereas no one remembers Donner, whose movies have probably entered the collective psyche of millions of people, especially children at impressionable ages. IMDB describes him as "middlebrow" and as having "little personal signature", and we all tend to glorify the directors who have a very distinctive personal signature, such as Kubrick or Spielberg, but maybe there's something to be said for the director who just sits back and lets his story tell itself.
says re Lethal Weapon
: As a side note. This movie deeply affected my perception of Greg's father in Dharma and Greg
. I kept expecting Mitch Ryan
to drop his tired old man act and twist Dharma's hippie head off.
says re Lethal Weapon
: It's also fun listening out for when Mel loses the accent.