“I’ve had my house destroyed, my car wrecked, and now my boat sunk. What’s left?!”
So, following on from my reviews of the first, second and third movies, we come to the end of this retrospective look at the Lethal Weapon film franchise, and it really does look like the end – both Lethal Weapon’s original writer, Shane Black, and series director Richard Donner (who hasn’t done a movie in 6 years) have wrestled for control over a fifth one, with Gibson being the deciding factor, and choosing to side with Donner out of loyalty, despite the fact that Black’s script may have been arguably superior (it involved a nearly-retired Riggs pulling Murtaugh out of retirement for one last big case, where Donner’s loosely had the two retired and driving around in a camper van, getting into trouble along the way). Indeed now the only hope of another movie probably lies in an ill-advised reboot.
It’s a shame (given Gibson’s current status as something of a pariah) since, after his surprisingly good return-to-form in the underrated gem, Get the Gringo – aka How I Spent My Summer Vacation – he could have done with a big comeback vehicle. Instead I suspect he’s going to get stuck with little more than supporting roles in projects like the Machete sequel, Machete Kills.
With all that said, I suspect that – at the time – the cinema-going public of the late nineties were not exactly expecting a Lethal Weapon 4 either. It had been over a decade since Riggs and Murtaugh were first united for Lethal Weapon, and some six years had passed since the last entry, which wasn’t exactly critically acclaimed. Indeed most of the magic of the first two movies had largely been lost over the years, with Lethal Weapon 3 being quite a disjointed mess of a sequel which amped the comedy factor up, but at the expense of most of the serious dramatic content. And the very ‘Lethal Weapon’ of the title – Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs – had himself become somewhat dulled from the precision killer that he was originally. Nobody was really eagerly anticipating another un-Lethal Weapon chapter. However, Lethal Weapon 3 had notched up several hundred million at the Box Office – proving to be the most successful instalment in the franchise – and a fourth film was really only a matter of time.
Lethal Weapon 4
“Since I met you, I done some hairy sh*t, but this is not gonna’ happen. I’m gonna’ be a grandfather; you and Lorna are gonna’ have a baby. He ain’t worth dying for, Riggs. He ain’t worth it.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re right.”
“The guy’s too damned good.”
“Well, yeah, he’s damn good. I mean, how did he do that thing with the gun? How the hell did he do that? I mean, he took my gun apart with one deft move. How did he do that? Huh? How?!”
“Yeah... okay. Let’s go ask him.”
After their latest explosive escapade blows the police department’s insurance carrier, Riggs and Murtaugh are promoted to Captains in the hope that this will keep them out of trouble. Both of them know that they are finally getting too old for this kind of action, and know that they probably have to slow down if they want to survive to retirement. However, it’s not long before they stumble across a plot involving money counterfeiting, people-smuggling, a modern-day slave trade, and four high-level Chinese Triad bosses – as well as a deadly assassin who may well be more than a match for even them.
Although one of the co-writers behind Lethal Weapon 3 (and the person responsible for some of the changes to Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon 2 script), Jeffrey Boam, had written a script treatment for a potential fourth movie, which pitted Riggs and Murtaugh in a suitably dramatic battle against neo-Nazis, the Studio behind the movies would turn instead to TV writer Channing Gibson to knock up a script involving Chinese gangsters instead. The end result would be a work-in-progress long after the project had been greenlit, and indeed the final scenes were written whilst the film was actually being shot; Gibson – at the time – maintaining that he wanted his character of Riggs to be killed off at the conclusion.
Despite this rush script job, and the subsequent rush editing job that saw the final cut turned around in little over a month (from the end of the shoot to the movie’s premiere) – and in spite of the third movie, which had potentially handicapped the franchise as a whole – Lethal Weapon 4 turned out to be surprisingly good. It was arguably the best that we could expect from this franchise, given the trajectory taken in the last movie, and whilst it was far from the heights of the superior first and second movies, it still allowed the series to go out on a reasonably high note. Similarly, even though it would have its own flaws and deficiencies, it would go some way towards rectifying some of the issues of Lethal Weapon 3, and arguably prove to be the sequel that that film should have been.
“You okay, Riggs?”
“No, I’m not okay. I just had my ass kicked. Again.”
One of the biggest problems that needed to be addressed was why Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs was no longer much of a ‘Lethal Weapon’. Whereas Lethal Weapon 3 offered up no explanation as to why Riggs was no longer a crack-shot, no longer a good fighter – and seldom even killed anybody – here, approaching fifty, Riggs’s slowing down is finally put down to him just getting old. A couple of early brawls with Chinese gangsters – and even a simple sparring match with the police amateur boxing team – see the near-fifty-year-old Riggs struggling to keep up the pace. He also has a baby on the way, with his long-term girlfriend Lorna, who he has not yet even proposed to, largely because he still hasn’t let go of his tragically killed first wife.
Though all of this would appear to give him an excuse to make all the same mistakes he did last time out, in actual fact the Riggs of Lethal Weapon 4 is a man fighting against his age to still hold his own – the operative word being fighting. Despite the fact that he may not win, his numerous fight sequences, and foot and car chase scenes, all go to show more than a hint of the Riggs of old – the same highly-trained ex-Special Forces soldier that we all know and love.
This time, when he shoots, he actually hits what he is aiming at: from the over-the-top opening set-piece where he has to strike a tiny valve on the back of a portable flame-thrower; to the cargo ship assault, where he shoots out a spotlight and two guards – with classic Riggs handgun marksmanship – and even shows off his ricochet skills using his new laser sight. When he goes toe-to-toe with Jet Li’s Chinese super-assassin, it’s not just one hell of a brutally punishing fight scene, but arguably also the best fight scene in the entire series.
“I’m sick of these f**kers Rog, I say we just find ‘em and shoot them, what do you think?!”
As stated, though, the fixing of some major problems does not mean that we aren’t introduced to a whole bunch of new ones. Firstly, whilst Riggs is off fighting to get the title back, Murtaugh is largely relegated to comic duties. It’s a shame because Murtaugh was actually afforded a little time to develop as a character in the last movie – it was one of the few plus points – but here he provides little more than comedy beats. He kicks off the story by stripping down to his boxer shorts and running around in the rain impersonating a clucking chicken; he commandeers a bicycle (!) to keep up in a foot chase; he’s busy saving Leo from a shark (!) whilst Riggs assaults a cargo ship; and he spends far too long making a fool out of himself because Riggs convinces him that the new detective on the squad – the man who is actually secretly married to Murtaugh’s daughter (how’d that happen?!) – has unwarranted affections for him.
Some of his funniest moments unfortunately come at the expense of diminishing the drama of the scenes before – like the bit where Riggs is driving like a maniac and says he wishes he had a siren, and Murtaugh proceeds to lean out of the window and wail, which, however funny, immediately follows a scene where Riggs and Murtaugh (as well as their families) are both nearly killed when they all are trapped in a burning building by Triads. The timing is definitely not right.
Indeed Murtaugh’s two main sub-plots are woefully inadequate, and painfully executed: a vague thread about him being investigated by Internal Affairs, who think he may be corrupt (which is treated as a joke, and was handled much better – in just one dialogue exchange – in the second movie), and a contrived slave trade angle which sees him help some Chinese slaves because that’s what his ancestors would have wanted. In one of the most unwarranted, crow-barred-in sequences in the entire movie, he gives a treasured family heirloom – his war veteran father’s old watch – to a complete stranger, just because they share a bottle of tequila and the man goes “I don’t have a watch.” It’s painfully out of place, and is there purely to give Murtaugh some throwaway line to Riggs – “I found my watch” – when the man gets killed.
Still, Gibson and Glover are at least on great form. Their innate, natural chemistry is one of the biggest reasons why the series should never be rebooted with other actors replacing them. Gibson was on a reasonable high at the time – his career was still wavering, but was now bolstered by his director/star routine on Braveheart, and he would go on to do the excellent Payback (even if Lethal Weapon 4 was probably the reason why Payback was re-cut with more of a comedy tone) and the enjoyable The Patriot – but, for Glover, the Lethal Weapon series felt much like the Bad Boys series is for Martin Lawrence, i.e. perfectly-timed career-revitalisation. The two of them genuinely convince as two long-term cop partners who make a hell of a team, making even the silliest scenes – like the nitrous gas interrogation at the dentists’ – into eminently enjoyable moments, and, if we ever got another Lethal Weapon film, it would undoubtedly be great to see them back together.
“Does trouble just go looking for you?”
“No, it seems to know pretty much where I am most of the time.”
Bringing back Murtaugh’s entire family, as well as Riggs’s now-pregnant love interest, Rene Russo’s Lorna, was all pretty understandable, and even Joe Pesci’s loudmouth Leo Getz – now a Private Detective – is a little more tolerable this time out (even though we could have done with less of him, the final scenes, particularly the graveyard sequence, do redeem his character a great deal), but the introduction of yet another irritating, loudmouth comedy element was entirely unnecessary.
The original script did not even call for Getz returning, let alone make space for the larger-than-life Detective Butters – the man who got Murtaugh’s daughter pregnant, and secretly married her – especially when he was being played by Chris Rock (Grown Ups). To think that the producers actually wanted this guy to take over from Glover in successive movies! Rock may well be a good stand-up comic, but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t to deliver all of his lines in a movie like he’s doing a stand-up comic routine. Whilst, by using shotgun-spread tactics, some of his consistently-shouted jokes actually hit the mark, the majority of them just grate on you, wearing down your tolerance and making you want him to just go away. He’s loud, annoying and over-the-top – particularly cringe-worthy in the more serious, dramatic scenes – and the film would have been so much better off without him in it.
In fact the saving grace was really the choice of villain. Where the last movie foolishly attempted to combine the roles of intellectual uber-boss and physically tough henchman into one (unlike the first two movies, which more effectively split the roles), and failed mainly due to the poor casting of Stuart Wilson, Lethal Weapon 4 goes down the same route, but largely succeeds. There’s one main reason for this: Jet Li.
Reportedly Li (The Expendables, Danny the Dog) had originally declined the role for the very same reason that Jackie Chan turned it down – neither of them wanted to play villains. Yet, where I think Chan (at least back then) would not have worked as a villain, I think Li was simply made to be one. Persuaded to take the part by Lethal Weapon series producer Joel Silver – who promised, in return, to give him his first Hollywood leading role (Romeo Must Die) – Li made his Hollywood debut in Lethal Weapon 4, and was one of the best things about it. Brooding and menacing, his Triad Enforcer barely speaks a single word in English across the entire movie, but his sheer presence speaks volumes – that and his deadly martial arts skills. Apparently director Richard Donner had to kindly request that Li slow down some of his ass-kicking moves because they were faster than the camera shutter speed and were not being picked up on film. Indeed, Li is undoubtedly Riggs’s and Murtaugh’s toughest opponent and it’s no wonder that they both get so banged up trying to take him down.
“If this was Hong Kong, you’d already be dead.”
Whilst this was the only one of the four movies to never receive a so-called ‘Director’s Cut’, it would end up being heavily censored in the UK by the BBFC to achieve a 15 Certificate (like Lethal Weapon 3), and it was Li’s scenes that suffered the most. Nearly ninety seconds of pure violence was trimmed – and the final three-way confrontation suffered the most, with a half a dozen kicks and almost as many headbutts taken out, only diminishing the potency of this epic fight scene. Watching the uncut version (the same as the US R-rated version) was almost like watching a Director’s Cut – such was the damage done by the censors.
Aside from the bigger, more brutal fight sequences, the aggrandised budget would also allow for some spectacular explosive set-pieces – from the opening prologue, to the cargo boat assault, to the exciting freeway chase scene. The Lethal Weapon franchise was always bolstered by its real stunts and distinct lack of CG, and the fourth chapter was no exception. Indeed, but for a brief moment where they go over the top – almost jumping the shark by having Riggs and Murtaugh take a leap through an office block – these were some of the best stunts across the entire series.
Remember Lethal Weapon 4 for bringing back the deadly Riggs of old and giving him one last shot at the title; for reminding us of the unparalleled chemistry of Gibson and Glover and giving them a worthy adversary – enabling them to go out on a high. Remember Lethal Weapon 4 for being a fitting end to a superb four film series that simply defines the buddy-buddy action-comedy-thriller genre.
“We’re NOT too old for this sh*t!”
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