We examine what’s surely the definitive buddy cop franchise in our latest episode, with a look at Lethal Weapons one through four. Join us and revisit these slices of extra-judicial mayhem!

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Lethal Weapon

Mel Gibson was quite the hot young thing in Hollywood once upon a time (yes, I know, weird, isn’t it?) after the success of the Mad Max trilogy, and he was an excellent choice to play Martin Riggs, the suicidal, burned-out maverick cop who nobody wants to work with. Narrative law states that such a character cannot be partnered with a similarly-minded person, because compatibility would be chaos, so he is partnered with 50-year-old, conservative, by-the-book sergeant, Roger Murtaugh, who is, you may be aware, too old for this shit. Casting for this character was less obviously apt, with the role going to stage actor Danny Glover, whose last film role prior to Lethal Weapon was as Whoopi Goldberg’s abusive husband in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. Director Richard Donner, though, felt he saw something immediately between the duo in casting, and the rest is history.

Before I continue to the plot, an aside (An aside? A tangent from ME?! A Governor! “Surely not!” I hear you cry). Lethal Weapon is that rarest of things: a film where the actors are cast substantially younger than their roles. Poor old Danny Glover, whose age is a running joke throughout the series, was a mere 40 when first playing the 50-year-old Murtaugh, and Mel Gibson only 31, though Riggs’ age, never stated, seems to stretch to whatever works for any given scene: if Riggs was the same age as Gibson then he was meeting Special Forces soldiers in Saigon at the tender age of 13. Not for the first time, though, I may be overthinking things…

So, the plot. Well, as this is an eighties action movie, the plot is not the most complex. A young woman takes one last, long, step off of a high balcony, and rather makes a mess of the car right below her. What seemed like a consequence of the drugs she was taking soon turns out to be more sinister: her death was both a murder and a warning. The recipient of that warning is her father, an old Vietnam buddy of Murtaugh’s, whose bank is a useful front for laundering the cash of a group of former soldiers and CIA agents who are now in the heroin business.

At the beginning of this investigation, Sgt Murtaugh is paired with a new partner, a frazzled Vice detective called Martin Riggs, who thinks about suicide every night after the recent death of his wife of eleven years (not an impossible number, but most dates and times with Riggs seem to come from a Random Number Generator). They’re like chalk and cheese, so laws of narrative causality tell us that they’ll be best friends by the end of the film.

Their investigation takes them into danger several times, during which they bond and become best friends. See? Told you. That investigation doesn’t merit much of a recap, mostly involving as it does car chases, violence, explosions and Gary Busey as the creepy Mr Joshua, the outfit’s lead enforcer. Sadly, Riggs and Murtaugh could have saved themselves a great deal of trouble in this film and all of the subsequent ones if they’d first investigated whoever it is in the clearly corrupt LAPD that keeps telling the bad guys where officers are working, on which cases they are working and, numerous times, where they live. But I, not for the first time, digress.

Writer Shane Black’s original draft, which he himself hated, featured a conclusion in which a truck full of cocaine would explode over the Hollywood Hills, with the white powder then snowing on the Hollywood sign, which is a strong contender for most eighties thing I have ever heard. It’s actually not any dafter than the real ending of Lethal Weapon, in which Riggs and Mr Joshua are allowed to fight, surrounded by police officers, in potentially lethal unarmed combat on Roger’s lawn for… reasons? But I admire the restraint. Talking of Murtaugh’s home, though, and the myriad calamities that occur there in this film and its sequels, I consider it a great failing of the series that it failed to even pay lip service to the fact that the Murtaughs must be the most hated neighbours anywhere in California. Shocking.

Nearly 35 years on, it’s good to know that Lethal Weapon still stands up: it’s a great deal of fun, even when my tolerance for its particular brand of action is not what it once was, and when I am very, very much over cars made out of nitro-glycerine or whatever it was they were seemingly filled with in the 80s.

The bulk of that has much to do with Glover and Gibson: Gibson is particularly good as the emotionally troubled younger officer, but Glover balances him well with his calmness, and the duo just work well together, and both have a lot of charisma. There are other, smaller factors, too: Roger’s family feels like a real family, the atmosphere in the police station feels relaxed and fraternal without being macho, the presence of the saxophone isn’t immediately hateful…

(To address this last point, I actually even like the presence of the saxophone here, even if this use has become a joke over time, used as it is for comedy stings, and being blissfully absent from most of the rest of the string heavy score. You better get used to that score, though, as it’s the same one you’re going to be hearing for the next three films, too, by which time you’ll a) be utterly sick of it, particularly the bits that sound 95% identical to really notable moments in Die Hard and, b) have realised that composer Michael Kamen has one score, and there’s less or no Eric Clapton in later films to bail him out.)

It’s really solid fun, and where it’s let down nowadays is the unnecessary instances of racism and, particularly, homophobia. These are things that recur through the series, and by the standards of the time, and the genre, they’re not actually so bad nor so common as you might expect, but that just makes them stand out more, and of course such things tend to have a little extra something now if they’re being delivered by ol’ Mel. But I wouldn’t let them put you off watching Lethal Weapon if you’ve never seen it.

Lethal Weapon 2

Mel Gibson’s Detective Martin Riggs and Danny Glover’s Detective Roger Murtaugh return two years later in order to do what was fashionable for sequels at the time, that being more or less the same thing again but cranked up a bit.

Here the duo stumble into a plot involving the smuggling of krugerrands, going all the way up to South African consul-general Arjen Rudd (Joss Ackland) and his attack dog, security agent Pieter Vorstedt (Derrick O’Connor). Warned off the case – diplomatic immunity, don’t you know – and assigned babysitting duties for Joe Pesci’s federally protected witness, Leo Getz, most famous of course for his snappy catchphrase, “anything you desire, Leo acquires”, I think it was. I may be remembering that wrong.

Naturally, the lads cannot stop sniffing around the case, with Leo in tow, leading to, well the sort of conflicts, chases and quips that you’d expect from a sequel to Lethal Weapon.

It’s a solid sequel, and enjoyable on its own terms. It’s not as good as the original for all of the decidedly unoriginal reasons, most of them common to any film series studios have decided should become a franchise. The character developments of Shane Black’s unfilled script for the project is largely jettisoned in favour of keeping Riggs and Murtaugh much the same, but with some of the rougher edges filed off for a more mass market appeal, but there’s more than enough chemistry between Gibson and Glover for that not to be too big of an issue.

Its primary problem is a need to be seen to turn up the dials a bit from the original, with mixed success. The Afrikaner villains are luxuriously hateful, but the perceived need to tie in to Riggs’ past is a bridge too far in a series that admittedly was never too high on the believability index, but coupled with the killing of off half of the duo’s barely mentioned detective colleagues and short schrifted love interest Patsy Kensit, and maybe this envelope cannot quite cope with this degree of pushing.

There’s certainly worse cases of sequelitis – indeed we’ll get to one of them – and this has maintained much of the charm, chemistry and kinetics of the first film so it’s a pretty enjoyable watch.

Lethal Weapon 3

Loud-thal Weapon 3, then, and, for me at least, the series’ low point. It’s strange that Shane Black is so strongly associated with the Lethal Weapon films since he only actually scripted one of them, and by this third outing he’s well gone, and it shows. Writing duties are instead taken up by Jeffrey Boam and The Karate Kid writer Robert Mark Kamen, but it’s certainly not his best work, with the seeming remit having been “make it much more boring, but also much much louder”.

The premise this time is that corrupt former LAPD lieutenant, Jack Travis (Stuart Wilson), is using his knowledge of police procedures to steal confiscated weapons and armour-piercing, cop-killing ammunition from the LAPD stores (why the cops have this latter is not made clear). These thefts are being investigated by René Russo’s Lorna Cole, an Internal Affairs detective, an investigation into which Riggs and Murtaugh stumble after trying to stop an armed robbery while busted down to patrolmen for blowing up a building.

This plotline only exists to loosely link together a series of action set pieces that are very much more than what came previously, but are conspicuously not better. Joe Pesci’s Leo Getz also returns, with the former money launderer turned government witness now Roger’s estate agent. For some reason. Perhaps because it wasn’t headache-inducing enough without him?

I’ve probably given short shrift to that plot recap there, so… eh… they get the bad guy? Mostly by means of shooting a lot of things and blowing a lot of things up.

By this third film the saxophone’s presence is now in no way acceptable, and has moved into being a substantial part of the score, so that’s extra non-good, as is the “hilarious” Mickey Mousing of the music while our heroes assault people. Yay!

There’re some weird tonal shifts going on, too, and it’s really frustrating as the subplot of Murtaugh dealing with having shot and killed a teenage friend of his son’s is emotional, dark and quite well handled by Danny Glover, but apparently not of much interest to the screenwriters or director as it gives way too quickly to comedy yucks and a bad sitcom-level misunderstanding. Contrast that, too, to the early scene where Riggs traumatises a member of the public by threatening to shoot him for jaywalking. What a card! Imagine how that would have played then, let alone now, if the victim of the “joke” had been black instead of white.

I should probably have some thoughts on the direction, editing and photography, but to be honest I wasn’t paying enough critical attention to that because LOUD. In every way. Oh, and because this film has always made me wonder how retirement from the LAPD works. Apparently, you can just decide not to? Very flexible workspace. Very modern.

Lethal Weapon 4

I don’t recall 1998 calling out for another Lethal Weapon outing after a six year gap, but here it is, and we all have to deal with it. Thankfully, it’s much easier to deal with than the third outing.

In what’s close to being a bit of character development, Gibson’s Riggs is starting to come around to the long-held position of Glover’s Murtaugh, that they are getting too old for these activities, particularly with Rene Russo’s Lorna Cole on the back stretch of a pregnancy.

But, they duo cannot help but stumble into trouble, here more or less accidentally uncovering a people-smuggling operation that puts them in the crosshairs of Jet Li’s Wah Sing Ku and the assorted goons of the Triad outfit in LA, with the usual increasing stakes as the film progresses, including yet more damage to cinema’s most frequently destroyed family home.

Riggs and Murtaugh are aided in their endeavours by Joe Pesci’s Leo Getz again, and also Chris Rock’s Detective Lee Butters, who I have no particular beef with, but he does sort of become totemic of the series’ increasingly wrought struggle between the dramatic and comedic elements always ending up a little too far on the comedic side. The original got away with it because Black’s comedy is witty, but efforts since then have been a touch too broad for my tastes, particularly mixed with the violence.

Speaking of violence, Jet Li’s pretty good, isn’t he? Well, we all knew that, and continue to know this, despite Hollywood having repeated failed to do anything useful with him apart from this, where his brand of dispassionate ass-kicking makes for a ruthlessly effective bad dude.

While LW4 does start to feel like an unhealthily diluted formula from LW1, and it’s dragged out a touch too long, it’s still fun to revisit the characters and their antics, even if they’re starting to feel more like they are in a sit com than a crime drama. However, I can’t think of many other fourth entries in a series that are as enjoyable as this one, so that’s got to count for something. Certainly not the worst member of its box set.


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