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Lethal Weapon

Precious few action films of 1987 left any kind of enduring impact, though there are a few minor exceptions. Beverly Hills Cop II was one of the year’s biggest hits, but that seems more like a comedy than an action film. James Bond made an appearance via Timothy Dalton with The Living Daylights, and Charles Bronson appeared for Death Wish 4, but those movies in themselves aren’t nearly as famous as the series they’re part of. More importantly, none of the films listed above are the kind that continue to have rabid fan followings in the present day.

No, this project needed an action film that remains beloved and influential 25 years later. Robocop and Predator are both strong candidates, except that I’ve already covered them. Somewhere in 1987, there had to be another red-blooded, brain-dead shoot-em-up worthy to represent the genre.

…Ah, of course. Lethal Weapon.

As of 1987, the “buddy cop” subgenre had been done previously by 48 Hrs., In the Heat of the Night, and the first Beverly Hills Cop, in addition to “Starsky and Hutch” and “Miami Vice” on TV, and these are just a few examples. That said, even if Lethal Weapon didn’t invent the subgenre, I’d argue that the movie perfected it.

Anytime someone parodies a buddy cop movie, this is the movie they’re cribbing from. Anytime a character says that a reckless policeman is “on the edge,” this is the movie they’re quoting. Hell, whenever anyone says that they’re “getting too old for this,” they’re quoting Lethal Weapon.

And why is the movie so iconic? The characters. By its very definition, a “buddy cop” story depends entirely on its two lead characters and the interplay between them. Fortunately, this movie gave us two wonderfully-developed characters while providing all of the cliched and mindless plotting we’d expect from a guns-blazing action romp.

The obvious place to start is with the namesake character, Martin Riggs. He’s a young renegade cop with a blatant disregard for safety or protocols, but that’s not what makes him interesting. How he got to be that way, that’s what’s interesting. A short ways into the film, we see that Riggs is chronically depressed and borderline suicidal after the death of his wife. As such, the guy puts himself in harm’s way and looks to all the world like a hero, but he’s really just a guy with an obsessive death wish. The guy is inherently unstable, always caught in an internal conflict between his job and his desire for the pain to end.

Nobody could have played this part but Mel Gibson, and not just because he brings the bug-eyed intensity that comes from being legitimately insane. More than that, Gibson manages to make Riggs’ inner conflict abundantly clear at all times. It’s nothing short of marvelous how Gibson puts so much emotion into every line. Seriously, who else could say “I’m hungry. I’m going to get something to eat,” and make it so memorable?

Opposite him is Roger Murtaugh, played by Danny Glover. Thanks to several scenes of Murtaugh’s home life, we see that he’s a devoted husband and a loving father with a great family. He’s got a good, stable life. That said, Murtaugh is still a veteran cop who’s feeling his advanced age. He’s generally happy with his life, yet he’s shaving his beard off in an attempt to look younger. To some degree, he needs to prove that he’s still every bit as sharp as he ever was. Then Riggs comes in.

As per the buddy cop formula, these two don’t get along at first. The trick, however, is that they don’t initially hate each other for the sake of it. In truth, Murtaugh is really just afraid of Riggs’ psychotic and suicidal demeanor. He’s afraid that Riggs is going to kill himself and others, possibly taking Murtaugh with him, and I’d say there’s good reason to be afraid of that. As for Riggs, it should go without saying that the chronically depressed man mostly wants to be left alone to his own devices.

And yet — again, as per the buddy cop formula — the two of them learn a great deal from each other. Through Riggs, Murtaugh is given the chance to prove that he can still be a man of action, in full defiance of his advancing years. Through Murtaugh, Riggs finally has someone to keep him grounded. More importantly, Murtaugh has effectively made his partner an honorary member of the family by the end, granting Riggs a piece of the stability and happiness found in the Murtaugh home.

Glover and Gibson work wonders in this movie, though it certainly helps that they have such a strong script to work with. The characters are wonderfully written, and every exchange of dialogue is enjoyable. Even when Riggs and Murtaugh are interacting with other characters (Riggs’ scene with the jumper and his initial drug bust come to mind), the dialogue simply flies off the page.

Fortunately, this movie led to a huge career breakthrough for screenwriter Shane Black. 1987 was a big year for Black in general, since he also wrote The Monster Squad and acted in Predator that same year. Black later went on to be one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood… until he strangely dropped off the radar after writing 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight. I’d assume this has something to do with how badly Black’s script was re-written under Renny Harlin’s direction. Luckily for all of us, Black returned in a big way when he wrote and directed the awesome Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He presently has a few films in various phases of development, foremost among them a little film called Iron Man 3.

Speaking of which, it’s worth pointing out that Black was only a consultant on Lethal Weapon 2 and had no involvement with installments #3 and #4. I suspect this was a factor in why the series got progressively worse with each movie. At least the second movie got us this awesome moment. But I digres.

Getting back to the film, it’s a great thing that the leads are so phenomenal, because everything else around them is kinda mediocre. There are all manner of worthless and unnecessary cliches in this film, such as the pointless decision to set the film around Christmas time. The villains are of course drug dealers, because that was just the cliche in the ’80s. Yet even by the standards of 1987, characters with backstories in the Vietnam War had gotten very stale. This movie contains at least four Vietnam veterans in its cast of characters.

The one memorable supporting actor is Gary Busey, playing a mercenary known only as “Mr. Joshua.” Busey’s brand of crazy is naturally welcome in any portrayal of an over-the-top baddie, and it makes his climactic showdown with Gibson all the more satisfying. On the other hand, that fight didn’t make a lick of sense, considering that they were surrounded by cops at the time. That many police officers weren’t going to let Joshua escape, and they wouldn’t let Riggs get killed or seriously injured, so why did the movie play the fight for so much suspense?

Honestly, the action as a whole was surprisingly hit-and-miss. The explosions were good, the car chases were satisfying, and there were some neat moments of gunplay here and there. On the other hand, there are moments when the actors have obviously been replaced by stunt doubles, and there’s a lot of terrible “A-Team firing” on display. Still, perhaps the most egregious example of botched action in this movie comes when Riggs jumps off a building with someone else in tow. And the handcuffs binding them have clearly disappeared. FAIL.

As for the other characters, none of them except for Joshua are remotely memorable. The supporting cast is filled entirely with two-dimensional villains and exposition machines. Occasionally, one of them will be lucky enough to get a few jokes. Easily the worst character of the bunch is Rianne Murtaugh (Traci Wolfe), Roger’s teenaged daughter, who becomes thoroughly useless during the climax. Girl doesn’t even have the good sense to take cover, she just jumps around and screams while bullets are flying around her. God help me, I honestly wanted her to get shot.

I also have some nitpicks with regard to the sound. Specifically, there are so many lines of dialogue in this film that blatantly sound like they were ADR’d in. There’s also the matter of Michael Kamen’s uneven score, though Eric Clapton turns in some great guitar work and the film’s use of saxophone is wonderful. On the other hand, the less said about Honeymoon Suite’s godawful title theme, the better.

To sum up, Lethal Weapon delivers two awesome characters surrounded by a mediocre and cliched movie. Then again, when you’re dealing in the “buddy cop” genre, two awesome characters are really all you need. Glover and Gibson both do a fantastic job of carrying this movie, with assistance from Shane Black’s outstanding screenplay. Riggs and Murtaugh are both presented as wonderfully complex characters, which is likely why this movie succeeded and all of its many subsequent wannabe ripoffs failed.

This movie is a reminder that any movie can be salvaged with the right script and the right actors. It’s a lesson that Hollywood needs to remember more often.

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