Skip to main content

Empire list #421: Lethal Weapon


Take a look at any bubby cop movie that has come out in the past twenty years and odds are it has been influenced by Richard Donner's “Lethal Weapon” franchise. It has all of the necessary elements for that genre: two cops, one white, one black, one is by the book, one breaks all the rules, one is a family man, one is single, one is old, one is young and they both have a weapon of choice. In real life cops investigate, gather evidence, and then arrest all the bad guys at once. Buddy cops investigate, get shot at, find out where the bad guys are hiding and then kill everybody in a massive shoot out while dishing out quips.

There are a total of four titles in this franchise and in just about all of them Danny Glover’s character says: “I am getting too old for this shit.” By the fourth one even Mel Gibson was getting too old and everyone knew it. I have seen all of them, but not in chronological order. I saw the second and third on TV and the fourth one on the big screen. Finally, one evening I finally got to see the very first one from beginning to end on TV. It worked more as a prequel from my point of view, explaining how Gibson’s and Glover’s characters first met, why it the franchise is called “Lethal Weapon,” and what was life before Joe Pesci and Rene Russo came along. Turns out it was a lot less funny and way more brutal.

Mel Gibson is Martin Riggs, a narcotics investigator who is contemplating suicide after the death of his wife in a traffic accident. Danny Glover is Roger Murtaugh, a homicide detective with a wife and kids. While Riggs is playing Russian roulette all alone in his trailer while watching cartoons, Murtaugh is getting ready for Christmas in his suburban home. Deemed a lethal weapon because of his army training and state of mind, Riggs is transferred to homicide so he can be less of a danger to himself and others. He is partnered with Murtaugh who of course wants nothing to do with him.

Their first case: the apparent suicide of a young woman who jumped off a skyscraper. Before jumping she had taken drugs laced with poison, making this a homicide. Through a series of connections with pimps, prostitutes and Vietnam War veterans, Riggs and Murtaugh stumble onto a major heroin smuggling operation. The man at the top is General McCallister (Mitchell Ryan) but as with all buddy cop movies, the real threat is the second-in-command. Gary Busey, back when he wasn’t the definition of insane, plays Mr. Joshua the general’s right-hand man. Just to prove he is a loyal, he is willing to burn his left arm with a lighter.

Along the way Riggs and Murtaugh get to know each other for better or worse. They practice at the range, share a few beers on Murtaugh’s boat and Riggs tries to kill himself with Murtaugh’s gun. They are an unlikely pair, but that’s why this movie, and most movies like it, works. They clash when they first meet (literally) but they bond over their hate of mutual enemies.

Compared to the rest of the titles in the franchise, this is the most brutal. The movie opens with a topless woman jumping off a balcony, Riggs is tortured with electroshock, characters swear constantly and when they get shot we see them bleed, the camera just doesn’t cut away. Then there is that final violent fight between Riggs and Joshua on Murtaugh’s front lawn. It makes no sense as it takes place in front of dozens of cops who are just standing there watching while a helicopter provides the lighting.

Today Mel Gibson is known for lots of things, mostly destroying his first marriage, destroying his second marriage, being charged with assault, offending women, offending the Jewish community and somehow also offending the black community. Yet, it can’t be denied he is a good actor and he brings a lot of humanity to Riggs who is constantly teetering on the edge. The character evolved into a happier and more stable cop with each sequel, but in this one you truly believe he could end his life after one two many beers.

“Lethal Weapon” has been imitated and copied many times in the decades that followed its release. Sometimes it has been done very successfully, as with “Hot Fuzz,” and sometimes with mixed results as with “Rush Hour.” The key, I believe, is this: have two leads with great chemistry, have actors who take the material seriously and above all have it rated R so us adults can have a good time. Well actually, I was nowhere near adulthood when I saw this R-rated film, but even then I could tell this is way more fucking fun than a PG-13 movie.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #77: Spartacus

Spartacus (1960) is an interesting movie in Stanley Kubrick's filmography because it doesn’t really feel like a Stanley Kubrick movie. I don’t exactly know why, but his signature style doesn’t seem to be present unlike in classics such as The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Dr. Strangelove. It does however feel like one of those big sword-and-sandals epics in which you have British thespians acting as Roman politicians with the occasional big battle sequence. In that respect it is spectacular and features Kirk Douglas at his best as the titular hero.
The story of the rebel slave Spartacus has inspired a bloody and sexy TV series (so far unseen by me, but I hear it’s great) and the story behind how it was made is one of those cases of life imitating art. The Bryan Cranston film Trumbo tells how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for his communist beliefs and had to rebel against the system by writing screenplays for cheap movies under a fake nam…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #79: The Thin Red Line

I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.
Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theat…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #85: Blue Velvet

Exactly how do you describe a David Lynch movie? He is one of the few directors whose style is so distinctive that his last name has become an adjective. According to Urban Dictionary, the definition of Lynchian is: “having the same balance between the macabre and the mundane found in the works of filmmaker David Lynch.” To see a prime example of that adjective film lovers need look no further than Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), which does indeed begin in the mundane before slowly sinking in macabre violence.
My first introduction to the world of David Lynch was through his ground breaking, but unfortunately interrupted, early 1990s TV series Twin Peaks. This was one of the first television shows to grab viewers with a series-long mystery: who killed Laura Palmer? A mix of soap opera, police procedural, and the supernatural, it is a unique show that showed the darkness hidden in suburbia and remains influential to this day. Featuring Kyle MacLachlan as an FBI investigator with a love for …