Thursday, June 21, 2012

Heavy Action: Lethal Weapon

by Patrick Bromley
Lethal Weapon didn't invent the buddy cop movie, but it might have perfected it.

Inspired by some observations in last week's writeup on Cobra, this week's Heavy Action was originally going to be a column on Vietnam War revisionism in both Rambo: First Blood Part II and Missing in Action. But then my beautiful wife got me the entire Lethal Weapon collection on Blu-ray for Father's Day, and I was reminded of just how much I like the first movie. And I'd much rather write about something good.

It's tough not to lump the original 1987 Lethal Weapon in with the three sequels that followed it, which, in a manner similar to the Die Hard sequels, are a textbook example of the Law of Diminishing Returns -- each movie is worse than the one before it (and I say that as someone who likes Lethal Weapon 2 and 3). Those movies gradually turned the franchise into action comedy, and then finally just comedy with some action elements. They turned Riggs and Murtaugh into lovable goofs and bickering pranksters. They scrubbed away the rough edges and the darkness of the original movie, and while they're still entertaining in some measure (except 4...never 4), they're nothing like Lethal Weapon.

That's because Lethal Weapon is an action movie not aimed at 10-year old boys, but at adults.  It's easy to forget just how dark and hard-edged the original movie is -- again, because the sequels proceeded to bleed these qualities out of the series and transform it into cartoon silliness. There's nothing very silly about Lethal Weapon, which opens with the suicide of a young girl before introducing its two protagonists: Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), a cop and family man who's depressed about turning 50 (Glover was only 40 when the movie was shot), and Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), a loose cannon who everyone believes either has a death wish or is faking a death wish to get "psycho pension." Either way, no one wants anything to do with him. As is to be expected, Riggs and Murtaugh are paired together on the case of the girl's suicide, which very quickly turns out to be a homicide, and it isn't long before the pair is uncovering conspiracies and huge heroin operations fronted by retired general McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) and his blonde-haired henchman Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey of Under Siege and Drop Zone and Surviving the Game, among others).
Mel Gibson popped off the movie, and it's easy to see why. He gets to be dark and tortured. He gets to be funny. He gets to fight and shoot guns and take down scores of bad guys all by himself. Most of the movie's best moments belong to him, like the opening drug bust, or post-electrocution neck breaking of Al Leong, or the movie's most famous scene, in which he steps out onto a building ledge to talk a jumper down but instead handcuffs himself to the guy and jumps off with him. And while it's funny and basically played for laughs, it's yet another reminder that Riggs wants to die. One of the first times we see him on screen, he's putting a gun in his mouth; not too many other action heroes of the '80s could say the same. He's not a vigilante like Charles Bronson in Death Wish. He's not a badass cop playing by his own rules like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. He's a good cop who can't pull the trigger on himself, so he's quick to put himself in harm's way so that he can instead die on the job. And guess what? It actually makes him a better cop.

But Riggs isn't suicidal just because he's sad about losing the love of his life. There are suggestions throughout the movie that even before he was married -- before he even met his wife -- he was something of a sociopath. He's haunted by his experiences in Vietnam. He admits that killing is the only thing he's good at. He has had a dark life, and he feels cut off from humanity. His wife was his connection to the rest of the world. She gave him normalcy, and without her he's completely adrift. That aspect of Riggs' personality isn't often talked about in discussions of Lethal Weapon, which tend to focus on the character's death wish and Mel Gibson's excellent crazy eyes (which, it turns out, are just his eyes, but I want to try and stay away from talking about what a fucking dick he turned out to be and focus on how great he is in this movie, which deservedly made him a movie star). Lethal Weapon isn't so much about a suicidal cop realizing he doesn't want to die. It's about him realizing he doesn't have to.

So Mel Gibson is what made Lethal Weapon a hit, but Danny Glover is what makes the movie work. He's what grounds the movie, and though he's saddled with the tired "I'm too old for this shit" dialogue (this is the movie that gave us that particular staple of bad cop dialogue), Glover is great as a family man and honest, working class cop just doing his best all the time. Compare him to Stallone in Cobra, who is the cop as rock star -- everything about him is designed to be cool. Roger Murtaugh is the opposite of that and, as such, actually wins our sympathy. We care about him because we identify with him. Even those of us who have never been black cops with four kids can at least identify with the way he reacts and relates to Riggs. He's afraid of dying because he has something to lose, and Riggs is a guy who brings death along with him. Plus, without Murtaugh, Riggs would just be a crazy cop with a death wish. Murtaugh is the guy who makes him part of his family -- he restores some of the normalcy that Riggs' late wife once provided. He saves Riggs from himself. That's the real story of Lethal Weapon.
Though buddy cop movies go back as far as Freebie & the Bean and Busting in 1974 (even earlier if you count TV, since I-Spy was on in the '60s), Shane Black's screenplay for Lethal Weapon pretty much created the template for the modern version of the genre. The movie made him a star overnight, and the action genre is better for it. His scripts have and edge and an energy to them that makes his action films special. Lethal Weapon was his best screenplay until he wrote and directed Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang in 2005. The Last Boy Scout, which tried to repeat the "buddy cop" formula he helped create, relied too much on jokey one-liners and mean-spirited dialogue. The mess of Last Action Hero can't be laid at his feet, as that was a case of too many cooks. Even The Long Kiss Goodnight (for which he became the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood at the time), which has a great idea at the center, crumbles somewhat under the weight of expectation and Renny Harlin's bombastic direction. That's part of what makes Lethal Weapon so good -- it's directed by Richard Donner, a practical, no-nonsense director who knows how to put a scene together but pretty much stay out of the way stylistically. He's one of the movie's secret weapons.

But back to the script. What's special about it is that it's one of the few action movies in which the action is driven by character and not the other way around. Sorry to keep picking on Marion Cobretti, but unlike say, Cobra, in which the only character development consists of two scenes of Stallone cleaning his gun, Lethal Weapon is just as interested (maybe more) in hanging out with Riggs and Murtaugh and watching them become friends as it is in solving the mystery at the center. In fact, I've seen the movie at least a dozen times and I've hardly ever paid attention to what the actual mystery is. I mean, I know who all the major players are and what the bad guys want, but there are some specifics to which I've never paid that much attention. That's because they really don't matter. This isn't a movie about plot. It's about character.

That's a good thing, because the plot can be a mess at times. For everything that Lethal Weapon does right, there are some major, major shortcuts and contrivances throughout the movie that aren't a result of lazy writing (I don't think anyone could accuse Shane Black's screenplay of being lazy) so much as storytelling cheats -- they needed the plot to move forward and didn't really want to spend the time doing it totally organically. That means there is a lot of coincidence and correct guesswork throughout the movie. Riggs and Murtaugh approach a house JUST as it explodes. Murtaugh figures out that a six-year old saying "It was paint!" means that the bad guy had a tattoo, which just happens to be the exact same special forces tattoo that Riggs has. The bad guys show up at all the right (wrong) times. The good guys figure things out that they shouldn't be able to figure out.
The finale is particularly problematic. Riggs and Mr. Joshua have a fight on the front lawn of Murtaugh's house, while ALL OF THE COPS look on. Riggs has the opportunity to kill Joshua -- you know, the way he has killed EVERY OTHER BAD GUY THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE MOVIE TO THE POINT WHERE IT HAS BECOME A PUNCHLINE -- but the movie throws in a "You're not worth it" via ADR and Riggs lets him go. Never mind the fact that the whole "not worth it" thing is always one of the dumbest things a character can say. I mean, I get it if they mean "You are not worth murdering and going to prison," but Riggs is a police officer and in no danger of being arrested. So what isn't worth it? Every other kill in the movie was worth it? But suddenly the one guy they've been trying to take down the whole movie isn't worth killing? The bigger problem is that this flies in the face of Riggs' character. I'm guessing this is intended to be considered growth, but it's really the wrong time to have the character grow. Have him opt not to kill some low-level henchmen or something. This is the one kill he should be ok with.

Shane Black says that the original script had a much, much bigger climax, with a tanker truck full of cocaine being blown up so that coke could be seen literally snowing down in front of the Hollywood sign. I'm sorry that never came to pass, because it sounds like a very Shane Black image, but its removal had a lot to do with Lethal Weapon getting made. The budget had to come down, meaning the scale had to be reduced. Besides, it isn't the kind of movie with huge elaborate set pieces like that (it would be more at home in the sequels), so it makes sense that the movie ends on Danny Glover's front lawn. As much as I have a problem with some of that final showdown, I do think it's the right ending for the movie. All they had to get rid of was Riggs saying "You're not worth it" in post. His follow-up line, "You lose," is much funnier and a perfect thing for the character to say.

If Lethal Weapon were released today, a lot of writers would probably call it a "bromance." That's because a lot of writers are horrible. Besides, it isn't a "bromance." It isn't even one of those Tango & Cash-style cops-who-put-their-differences-aside-and-realize-they-make-a-pretty-good-team movies. It's a movie about a tortured cop who is saved by a decent man and his family. Riggs could easily be that guy out on the building ledge, only instead of handcuffing himself and jumping off with him, Roger Murtaugh talks him back inside.

Got an action movie you'd like to see highlighted in a future Heavy Action? Discuss in the comments below.


  1. Well written, Mistah Bee, but from a dummy's perspective, you can simply say that Lethal Weapon is good because it provides one lone good buddy cop movie criteria (well, my criteria, anyway) - no petty, sibbling-like, obnoxious bickering, which I guess many bad directors think what's bc comedies are all about (I'm looking at you, Brett Ratner). And what made it great is what you wrote back there.

    PS: "Face/Off", some time soon, pleeeeeeeeeaaaase!<D

    1. Thanks, Joey! There is a refreshing lack of squabbling in the movie. Even though the sequels had more of it, the series does a pretty good job of staying away from it altogether.

      Face/Off it is. Soon.

  2. Nice column. The "Lethal Weapon" series does nothing for me (the first two are fun, the last two I've seen once each and that was enough) but it's easy to notice the steep-though-not-complete decline in quality from the first movie (clearly meant to be a one-off flick without franchise expectations) to the cartoony-and-OTT first sequel (which starts with a "Looney Tunes" musical riff right in the first couple of opening titles... not a coincidence!).

    Hope you eventually do a "Lethal Weapon 2" column because, even with Shane Black half-assing it in the script (which was clearly rushed into production after the unexpected box office smash the first turned out to be), it still has all the things we love in this type of movie: likable heroes (now with sidekick Joe Pesci), a ridiculously cute and smoking hot babe that gets naked (Patsy Kensit (.)(.)), bad-ass villains (Joss Ackland), ridiculously OTT action/shootouts/car chase scenes and, of course, memorable one-liners ("Diplomatic Immuuuuuunity"!). What more could a guy ask for?

    It's no "Lethal Weapon" (nothing is) but to me "2" is a lot more fun and rewatchable as an action flick than the other three "LW" movies; I've had a fear of someone slamming my head with a car door ever since I saw "2" that still haunts me (true story! :-P).

  3. I just watched this for the FIRST TIME tonight. Really good. If it wasn't so late I would Die Hard marathon all of them.

    But...ugh...the front lawn karate fight, really? If Busey won, does he not go to jail?