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).
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.
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.
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.