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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.


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