“We’re back, we’re bad, you’re black, I’m mad.”
After the tenfold success of Lethal Weapon, it was no wonder that a sequel was almost immediately greenlit; released just 2 years after the first movie. The surprise was just how great the movie was. You see, decent sequels are actually relatively hard to come by. It’s one thing if you change things up completely, and take the story in a completely different direction – the prime example being the sci-fi-actioner Aliens working wonderfully as a development of the sci-fi-horror of Alien – but, stick too closely to the original formula, and you could end up with a Die Hard 2 to your Die Hard. Retaining the characters, setting and general story-arc – but still keeping things fresh – requires some serious talent, but director Richard Donner’s crew (including returning writer Shane Black) as well as his well-chosen cast, were well up for the challenge, and managed to pull it off pretty-much perfectly.
Continuing our retrospective look at the Lethal Weapon franchise – to tie in to the 25th Anniversary of Lethal Weapon – and following on from my review of the first movie here, we now investigate what made the sequel arguably just as good as the original, and certainly the movie that stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and director Richard Donner, all consider to be their favourite out of the four.
Lethal Weapon 2
“I’m the guy that changed the course of your life. 4 years ago, Riggs, when you were a narc off Long Beach, you were getting too close to us so we put a contract out on you. I handled it myself; drove your car right off the f**king road, remember? No, of course, you weren’t driving. You can’t imagine the surprise. I pulled back this matted mop of blood-soaked hair to see this woman’s face... your wife, right? She didn’t die straight away... it took a bit of time.”
Riggs and Murtaugh are back in the thick of things when a high speed pursuit sets them on a money trail that points in the direction of a group of South African drug dealers. This time, however, they find that the bad guys are protected by diplomatic immunity, although that doesn’t stop the boys from mixing it up, encountering a loudmouth accountant along the way who they have to protect from assassination, and finding that the villains don’t take kindly to their persistent interference. As they race towards a deadly conclusion – the body count piling up in their wake – Riggs is forced to confront a dark revelation from his past: facing the man who killed his wife.
The great thing about Lethal Weapon 2 is that – although it largely follows the winning formula of the first chapter – rather than just throw the already-established characters into an all-new case and focus on the action and stunts, it instead takes the time to further develop the characters, and give them over-reaching story arcs which bind together the two movies better than any of the other sequels did.
Of course Shane Black certainly had a very different, darker story in mind when he agreed to write the script to the sequel. Indeed it was so different that he left the project when he found out about the changes that they were planning to make. Whilst the overall idea of coming up against diplomatically protected drug dealers survived the transition, along with clearly most of the best dialogue scenes and noteworthy set-pieces, Black ultimately wanted things to be as dark as the first movie – if not even darker – whereas Donner wanted to take things in a different direction.
“I don’t give a f**k. That’s why I don’t have an ulcer, because I know when to say ‘I don’t give a f**k’!”
Not only did Black envision the South African villains as being even nastier than we see from them (with them brutally torturing Murtaugh at one point) but he also had a very different, very bleak ending in mind. It was not the first time that he had wanted to go down the less sequel-friendly route – his original ending for Lethal Weapon was to have Riggs and Murtaugh go their separate ways, with Riggs convincing Murtaugh not to retire – but with Lethal Weapon 2 he wanted to go one step further. He wanted to kill Riggs.
Some might welcome the idea of erasing the third and fourth movies from history, and ending the series on a high(er) note, whilst others would probably struggle to think of the franchise as anything less than the 4-film entity that it is, for good or for bad – either way, however, in writer Shane Black’s mind, it was the logical end to story-arcs established in the first movie, and then completed in the second. And even though I wouldn’t be one of those wanting to go back and rewrite Lethal Weapon history, I also realise that he wasn’t wrong.
You see, as much as Lethal Weapon was about reigniting that spark within Murtaugh, and giving him a reason not to retire, Lethal Weapon 2 was about Riggs coming full-circle and confronting the demons which led him to be so suicidal in the first movie. Arguably the logical conclusion once he had done that – i.e. once he had taken down the man who had killed his wife – was for Riggs to die too.
“I’m not a cop tonight, Roger, it’s personal. I’m not a cop.”
Miraculously, Black’s departure did not fatally damage the end result. It could have, as the new screenwriters brought on board (including The Last Crusade’s writer Jeffrey Boam, who would remain on script duty for the weakest of the series, Lethal Weapon 3) originally not only wanted Riggs to survive, but also his love interest, with the planned – and shot – ‘happy’ ending to be a scene of the two of them eating Thanksgiving Dinner with the Murtaughs. Thankfully this did not sit right with director Richard Donner, who chose instead to go down a halfway path between Black’s dark vision, and the lighter alternative, allowing Riggs to survive – but only just – and using the death of his latest love interest to spur him on for the finale’s vengeful killing spree (in making this change, Donner would shoot a scene which didn’t really make any sense – with Riggs making an uncharacteristically foolish mistake by taking the girl home just minutes after they were attacked by a two-helicopter hit-squad at his beachfront camper; thankfully the stupidity of this was largely forgotten about by the next sequence, where we find the darkest revelation of all: the truth about Riggs’s wife’s death).
In the grand scheme of things, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Lethal Weapon 2 did not have the darker undercurrent of a near-suicidal semi-psychotic lead character running through it, with Riggs’s behaviour being much more tactically crazy rather than certifiably mad, but there was still a time and place for him to go over the edge. Of course that would leave many viewers just waiting for him to be pushed that far, so that he could turn into that ‘Lethal Weapon’ of the title that we all know and love, which was why it was an appropriate choice for Donner to fuel his anger with not only the deaths of several fellow cops, but also the death of his girlfriend.
“I’m surprised you haven’t heard of me, I got a bad reputation, like sometimes I just go nuts... like now...”
In light of the changes, and the slightly lighter, more comic tone – still well balanced, unlike the successive sequels – it’s easy to see why this entry proved to be a favourite amongst Donner, Gibson and Glover. Gibson was able to morph his overtly psycho cop into a much more fun character, still capable of pushing things to their limit, but largely directing his ‘madness’ towards a greater good, and frequently coming across as the distinctly lesser evil when facing off against the villainous killers who are hiding behind their diplomatic immunity. Indeed you root for the guy throughout, never once questioning his actions or his over-enthusiasm; he’s just willing to go that extra mile.
The non-suicidal Riggs persona allows for some new aspects to be brought into his life, from the touching moment of brotherly love when Murtaugh is trapped on a ticking time-bomb (by now the two of them are well and truly gelling together), to the fantastic ‘gold pen story’ with Murtaugh’s wife, where we get to hear what happened on the day Riggs got the call to say that his wife was dead. He even finds the time to woo the cute secretary working for the South African diplomats, leading to a wonderful little scene where he convinces her to have dinner with him. We’d never seen this side of Riggs, and it was a nice touch.
Gibson felt never more at home than here in this role, in this movie, and, if anything, the more touching moments involving his character provided a welcome build-up before the darker revelations that would send him into ‘I’m gonna’ kill them all’ mode. Indeed it was a perfect balance that would shift too far in the wrong direction in the later movies, with only the merest glimmer of similar over-the-edge anger in the third movie – when he thinks his new love interest has been killed – and little trace of it to be found by the time they got around to Lethal Weapon 4.
“Don’t try to stop me.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen that look in your eyes before.”
Glover was still a year away from taking to the Detroit streets of ‘the future’ in Predator 2, and was enjoying every minute of being reunited with Gibson. After all, the two of them hadn’t really done anything of significance in the year between the release of the first movie and the start of principal photography on the second (Gibson had starred in the underrated Robert “Chinatown” Towne noir-ish thriller, Tequila Sunrise; Glover had co-starred with Hackman in Bat: 21). Their scenes together in Lethal Weapon 2 were superb; perfectly matched, with chemistry to spare – their dialogue was frequently interspersed by contagious laughter that couldn’t have been anything less than genuine. Whether due to the ensuing hilarity after Murtaugh finds out his daughter was in a condom commercial, or from recounting the “b-b-but you’re bleck” scene in the South African consul, these two were clearly having a great deal of fun. Sure, it would have been nice to see a darker storyline for Glover (there is a wonderful little touch where he is tempted to take drug money, which is better than the entire ‘on the take’ subplot of Lethal Weapon 4) – and perhaps if they’d stuck to Shane Black’s original vision we’d have seen more from of this – but this tale wasn’t really about his character: he had had his personal thread in the first movie and here, for good or for bad, they took his family out of the picture fairly early on; it was time for Riggs to get personal.
Without Murtaugh’s family on board beyond the halfway mark, the story drafted in a new character to provide some lighter relief, to reasonable effect – Joe Pesci’s Leo Getz. This was a year before Pesci would give that career-defining performance as the psychotic Tommy in Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and he was still developing after a promising start in My Cousin Vinny. To some, Pesci’s Getz was like the Jar-Jar Binks of the Lethal Weapon series, but I think that in Lethal Weapon 2 – for the most part – he was actually quite effective. Sure, he was often little more than a tool for greater laughs, but was that such a bad thing? So long as a good balance was maintained between the more humorous moments and the more dramatic content – which it was – it really didn’t seem like the end of the world to throw a further party into the mix. Indeed, it was only really in the third and fourth movies where they allowed Pesci’s over-eager personality here to invade upon the integrity of the thriller; here they just about managed to keep it in check, whilst also milking it for some decent laughs.
“What happened to the bad guys? They all dead?”
“They’ve been de-kaffir-nated!”
It also helped the sequel to have what every decent sequel needs – a solid set of villains. For starters, the clearly-evil-but-protected-by-diplomatic-immunity bad guys were a great choice, offering up truly dangerous opponent who simply could not be touched by the law, but the individual actors were all fairly generic (as is often the case) but for the two important lead baddies.
Joss Ackland’s slimy, Jabba-the-Hut-like uber-boss is the perfect head man for the dirty, above-the-law drugs-smuggling organisation, just as quick to eliminate the men who have failed him as he is to put a target on the cops after him. He’s practically a Bond villain in scale, although he manages to rein in the performance to just the right side of pure ham (almost replicating the part for the solid Van Damme vehicle Nowhere to Run a few years later).
Mirroring the division of roles between boss and lieutenant as established in Lethal Weapon – one gives the orders, where the other actually poses a physical threat – Riggs is given a worthy opponent in Derrick O’Connor’s Pieter Vorstedt (who Riggs perpetually calls ‘Adolf’ throughout the film). Not only is Vorstedt a highly trained assassin, but he also knows Riggs personally, and this is what always makes a villain more interesting. He is, after all, the man who was hired to kill Riggs four years earlier, but who inadvertently killed his wife instead. The closing confrontation between Riggs and Adolf is punishingly brutal, and results in a much-deserved and fairly protracted death. Rather than just replicate the martial arts punch-up of Lethal Weapon, this scene allows O’Connor’s more stealthy character to make sniping attacks on Riggs – literally kicking him when he’s down – and thereby show himself to be just as dangerous an opponent, even without the physical stature of Lethal Weapon’s Mr. Joshua.
Further bonding the two movies together inseparably, we saw the return of many of the almost unnoticed supporting characters from the first movie. Although these were tiny bit parts for actors who you might only vaguely recognise, it worked to give the films, set three years apart, some fantastic continuity; even though they largely had a core unit of cast members, the supporting police team felt more tangible and thus more convincingly real – this was particularly effective when the villains started to take more drastic action against them.
“They declared war on the police.”
Perhaps the biggest bone of contention, cast-wise, was not Pesci but actually Patsy Kensit, who played Rigg’s new love interest, the South African secretary caught between the slimy attentions of her nasty boss and the charms of Rigg’s investigating officer. I actually don’t think Kensit is terrible in the role – indeed, if they had retained her character across further films it may well have changed the course of her abortive film career – but it was probably for the best that her part was so short and sweet.
Of course, with almost double the budget, the set-pieces were even more impressive than in the first movie. From the opening high speed pursuit – involving explosions, car crashes and a helicopter assault – to the elaborate chase sequence with Riggs clambering around on a tow truck; from the dive out of a window into a hotel swimming pool to the car driving out of the container suspended above a ship, the stunts felt bigger and grander this time around, but still benefited from being real and not tainted by visual effects. The biggest example of this was when they actually tore down an entire mansion – literally pulling out the supporting stilts to see it collapse down the hill; it was a massive set-piece moment that cost some $500,000 (2% of the entire budget) for just a few seconds of footage. It was worth it, and much preferred to the CG option that would nowadays be crafted in its place.
The film was also the first in the series to sport the wider 2.4:1 aspect ratio, and Donner frequently played with this broader landscape quite adventurously, using numerous split-diopter shots to great effect. Although not as intrinsic to the plot as, say, with a Brian De Palma film (c.f. Blow Out), they certainly added a nice touch. Whether it be Riggs and Murtaugh chatting in the kitchen, or the nasty villain executing one of his own, the dual-focus shots furthered the director’s style, and it’s a shame that they were far from prevalent in the later movies (which also followed suit with the 2.4:1 ratio), perhaps going out of fashion with the end of the 80s.
Perhaps not quite the perfect animal that was Lethal Weapon, the sequel was still nearly as good, an excellent example of how to maintain a winning formula without allowing the production to become stale and predictable. Indeed, whilst there are some elements – most notably the changes made to Shane Black’s script – which may have contributed to the film being not quite the masterpiece of the original, it’s difficult to fully assess these when you consider that, in their place, we got not only more humour and more satisfying closure, but also two further movies. It’s definitely easy to see why the fun element injected into Lethal Weapon 2 leaves it as being the favourite instalment for the cast and crew – there are several outright hilarious scenes that work brilliantly without detracting from the dramatic content (like the bit where Murtaugh asks Riggs to keep it quiet when calling for the bomb squad and dealing with his ‘toilet problem’, immediately followed by a shot of dozens of police officers, firemen, reporters and bomb squad personnel convening outside – and inside – Murtaugh’s house).
“Why didn’t they plant the bomb in Trish’s stove?”
“Yeah. Think of all the needless suffering that could’ve ended there!”
Unlike the director’s cut of the first movie, there wasn’t a single scene in the director’s cut of Lethal Weapon 2 that really warranted being re-inserted into it – if anything the director’s cut of the sequel was actually an inferior version, and so won’t be missed here. Indeed the only version of the theatrical cut that should be avoided was the original 18-rated British cut version; no worries here, of course, this release sports the full uncut theatrical version, complete with the very necessary moment where Riggs viciously takes out the thugs who had drowned his girlfriend.
Remember Lethal Weapon 2 for the great jump-straight-into-the-action opening that saw Murtaugh’s wife’s new stationwagon ruined by Rigg’s enthusiastic driving; for the condom plant; for the well-used plot device of Rigg’s ability to conveniently dislocate his shoulder “it hurts... but not as much as when I put it back in...”; for the “wipeout” tow truck scene; for the “free South Africa” distraction; for the “shooting his fish” scene; for the two-helicopter beach-front assault and Riggs’s sniping of the helicopter with his Beretta; for the attack on the stilt-house and the assault on the docks. For Riggs finally confronting the man who killed his wife, and Murtaugh finally dealing with the above-the-law crime boss... permanently.
“It’s just been revoked.”
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