“Riggs, everyone else is outside. Only me, you, and this cat are dumb enough to be in here.”
After the massive Box Office success of the first two Lethal Weapons, a further sequel was inevitable. Third place is always a hard fit (Alien 3, Batman Forever, Blade III, Robocop 3) and tricky to pull off unless the series was originally conceived as a trilogy (Return of the King, Dark Knight Rises), with one of the biggest exceptions – Die Hard with a Vengeance – ironically being allegedly adapted from an unused Lethal Weapon script.
Funnily enough, the third chapter proved to be the most commercially successful of the entire series. Critical reception, however, was less favourable, indicating that it may have just been riding on the coattails of the first two. Let’s find out...
Lethal Weapon 3
“After all the sh*t we’ve been through, don’t you get it? When you retire, you’re not just retiring you, you’re retiring us! You’re the only family I’ve got. I’ve got three beautiful kids – I love them – they’re yours. Your wife does my laundry; I live in your icebox; I live in your life! What am I gonna’ do? What am I supposed to do?”
Set in 1992 – 6 years after Riggs and Murtaugh first met, 7 years after Riggs’s wife was killed, and 3 years since they took out her killer – Murtaugh is finally ready for retirement, and Riggs has no idea how to deal with it. Behaving even more recklessly than ever, Riggs’s latest explosively devastating stunt lands them back on uniform duties, but, even then, they still can’t stay out of trouble, stumbling across a conspiracy involving an ex-cop-turned-arms dealer smuggling a new type of armour-piercing ammunition – dubbed ‘cop-killers’ – and planning a grand heist from the LAPD arms depot itself. With an Internal Affairs watchdog assigned to supervise the operation, it’s now up to the three of them to take down the bad guys.
After the first movie played out against the plausible contemporary backdrop of the post-Vietnam heroin drug trade, and the second movie incorporated the South African political strife into its money-laundering plot, Lethal Weapon 3 attempted to follow suit and remain just as relevant.
By the end of the eighties the drug trade had shifted from heroin to crack cocaine, and street violence was on the rise once more as a result. The police were forced to come down pretty hard on gangs – the CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) initiative within the LAPD was working at full-throttle by the early nineties – but police corruption was an increasingly worrying issue too, and the hard-nosed take-no-prisoners ex-Vietnam generation of cops were largely becoming a dying breed, with Internal Affairs now making a name for themselves too.
This was all undeniably rich and fertile ground upon which the writer(s) of Lethal Weapon 3 could sow their seeds and, with the right script, there was the potential for impressive results.
Unfortunately things were very different on the Hollywood battleground. The quintessential 1980s action movie was dying out too, along with the action heroes within. Gratuitous violence was no longer in fashion, and you could feel the unstoppable behind-the-scenes push towards more PG-13-rated (the near-equivalent UK 12 rating had just come into effect, pre-12A) material and less hard-R (18 Certificate) action. The trouble was that, with toned-down violence often came commensurate toned-down drama, designed less for adults, and more for teens – and even families.
Lethal Weapon 2 had already suffered on UK home formats at the hands of the censors, who did not approve of some of the violence, and the Studios behind Lethal Weapon 3 were definitely interested in steering the series away from a serious Boyz n the Hood-esque backdrop, or a controversial police corruption one, shifting it from the adult action-thriller-with-welcome-laughs field that the first two movies had played in, to a more outright action-comedy.
“You have the right to remain unconscious. Anything you say ain’t gonna’ be much.”
It was an easy step to take, too. After the departure of Shane Black (who, if he’d had his way, would have ended the series – and Riggs’s life – with the second film), writer Jeffrey Boam was brought in to change around Lethal Weapon 2, and not necessarily for the better, heightening the comedic slant to just-about acceptable levels, whilst pushing to go for a ‘happy ending’ with Riggs and his new girlfriend having Thanksgiving Dinner with Murtaugh’s family (thankfully director Richard Donner curtailed this terrible idea). When it came to the third movie Boam would partner up with Luc Besson’s frequent co-writer, Robert Mark Kamen (they worked on Leon, Taken and the Transporter trilogy, and Kamen himself had previously done the original Karate Kid trilogy) and the two of them would turn in a final draft which was even more of a mess, incorporating far less adult drama, and far more humour, and going for a very similar ending to what Boam had planned for the second movie.
The story was where the problems would all stem from. Whilst Lethal Weapon would have an obvious central story arc, it never felt simple because of the clever investigation-based way in which it was developed. Lethal Weapon 2 would further cut this down to basics, but add a layer of complexity in the character developments that ensued (most notably tying back in to Riggs’s personal history). When it came to Lethal Weapon 3, however, the story was too simple – Riggs would probably call it “anorexic” – and just did not have the strength to carry the weight of the satellite sub-arcs that would revolve around it.
The unforgivably simple central plot was that of a corrupt ex-cop who was suspected of gun-running. The first trouble came in how Riggs and Murtaugh ‘conveniently’ happened across the whole arms dealing operation, an utterly pointless opening sequence (which sets the comic tone from the outset) being there merely as an excuse to have them busted back to street detail, which in turn is an excuse to have them literally walking past the dodgy armed security guards making off with their loot. It’s a shame because I think it’s often important to tie opening sequences – however explosively dramatic – into the rest of the proceedings. Imagine if the memorable Wall Street explosion that kick-started Die Hard with a Vengeance was little more than an excuse to wake up Bruce Willis’s beleaguered John McClane, and was actually never a part of the rest of the movie. Well, in Lethal Weapon 3, the opening is painfully contrived and only serves to undermine any ensuing dramatic content with its overly playful – and surprisingly inconsequential – tone.
“I’m thinking we should cut the blue wire.”
“Wait! That’s not what I’m thinking!”
“What? You think maybe the red?!”
Once the tone is set, it’s difficult to un-ring that bell. After they get onto the main villain’s trail – unlike in the first two movies – they almost immediately find incriminating evidence against him in the form of a videocassette (provided by Internal Affairs, no less) which shows him committing first degree murder. As soon as that happens, the rest of the plot becomes little more than an extended hunt, dragged out through an abortive ice-hockey game confrontation, a warehouse raid, and a rather more exciting police station ambush; eventually leading right back to the villain’s own half-constructed building complex: a convenient, if unlikely, location that screams ‘action set-piece’ from the get-go, and insults the intelligence of the viewer in having us believe that the main bad guy – once he knows that the cops are onto him – would just go back to the very construction site that he can be tied to.
It’s bad enough that they made this plot so flimsy – little more than an excuse to string together a number of action and comedy sequences to grab at your attention – but, in an attempt to add a layer of depth, they try and tie in a number of peripheral sub-plots that don’t ever feel fully integrated to the whole.
We have Murtaugh’s attempt at retirement (another stolen plot idea, left-over from the original first draft to Lethal Weapon itself, and only really referenced in the film’s Alternate Ending), which leaves Riggs at odds with where he is going to go; we have the increase in gang violence – a massively sidelined element – which sweeps up Murtaugh’s now-teenage son, and leads to one of the more dramatic moments in the film: Murtaugh dealing with killing a young black gang youth who was a friend of his son’s; we have the very vaguely hinted-at corruption theme from films like Chinatown about using high crime to lower prices, then buying and developing and consequently ‘controlling’ the crime (this strand is the most underdeveloped); and we have the introduction of Riggs’s new love interest, the bolshy tough girl from Internal Affairs who gives as good as she gets and proves to be basically the closest thing he could get to a female version of himself. The foundation is simply not strong enough – nor related enough – to tie-in to the rest of the sub-plots, and you increasingly get the feeling that there were a whole load of good ideas thrown into Lethal Weapon 3, but nobody came up with a solid plot upon which to hang them (oh, how fans would mourn the loss of Shane Black).
Which brings us to the characters. One of the biggest problems with Lethal Weapon 3 is the lack of a strong villain. Where the first two movies cleverly split bad guy duties between an intelligent, strategic, in-command uber-boss, and a physically tough, hands-on first lieutenant, the third movie attempted to blend all of these traits into just one person (not wholly unlike the role of Jeremy Irons in Die Hard with a Vengeance, although thankfully he didn’t strip down to his vest until the very end). The result was neither pretty nor effective. Stuart “Mask of Zorro” Wilson’s Travis occasionally gets the tone right – delivering the odd witty line with panache, or executing a particularly nasty move in a professional fashion – but is more often than not let down by both a lack of presence and a terrible moustache. He’s at his best when he kidnaps the police Captain and attempts to justify his corrupt actions; but he just doesn’t convince going toe-to-toe with Riggs himself, however much he plays dirty.
“You know what kind of future a cop has? None. You punch a clock for 30 years, retirement, pension... nothing to do. Drunk at noon, bullet in the brain by evening.”
Then there’s the return of Joe Pesci’s now even more neurotic Leo Getz, the money laundering accountant from the second movie, who has turned into some kind of real estate dealer (although he does more detective work than selling houses – paving the way for his thread in the fourth movie). The first draft of the script did not include him at all – his character had moved to New York – but that doesn’t let writer Jeffrey Boam off the hook because he also wrote a second draft to his own script, and I’ve no doubt that this is where Leo was worked back in. It’s a shame because, unlike in the second movie where his participation was largely harmless, here he is just a constant pest – and an irredeemable one at that. He has almost developed into full Jar-Jar-Binks mode, although at least he has some laughs to add to the mix, which, whilst inappropriate for a Lethal Weapon film (in light of the first two movies) makes things entertaining in a different fashion.
Gibson’s Riggs unfortunately suffers in much the same way. Gibson himself was in a slight lull during the early nineties. His last four films in the four years since Lethal Weapon 2 were certainly not bad, but they were also not huge blockbuster earners, and they were also all further deviating from his hardcore action of the eighties: the lightweight Air America and Bird on a Wire only detracting from his surprisingly competent 1990 rendition of Hamlet. Perhaps it was an image thing – an attempt to appeal to a broader, younger (and more female) audience – but the Gibson we got in Lethal Weapon 3 was in full-on comedy mode. This was all fun – in much the same way as for Pesci – and there’s no doubt that Gibson has great comic timing and a real genuine sense of prank-playing about him (he was well known for it behind the scenes), but the filmmakers forgot one thing: he was playing Martin Riggs, ex-Special Forces, formerly suicidal, certainly psychotic, and just about the best shot that audiences had ever been introduced to. The comedy was part of the craziness
Lethal Weapon 3’s Martin Riggs was a very different animal. The bad side of reckless, he is no longer suicidal, but more just antsy about his partner’s imminent retirement. Is that a reason to blow up a building? He likes playing pranks, but here they make no sense – drawing your weapon on a member of the public for jaywalking isn’t actually funny in real life (remember, this is from the same guy who would kindly cover up Murtaugh’s AD: shooting his weapon in the locker-room by mistake); and shooting out a member of the public’s tyres is even less justifiable – and approach a Three Stooges level of slapstick comedy that borders on self-parody.
“Do you have to solve everything with your fists?!”
“Well, I couldn’t use my gun – there were people around.”
As stated, the laughs come hard and fast, but at what expense? What happened to the Riggs who would lay his life on the line to take down the bad guys? What happened to the Riggs who preached about shooting and just not missing; the man who was asked whether he ever met somebody that he didn’t kill; who said that being a crack shot was the only thing he was ever good at? Here he shoots the hell out of everything, but – until the final set-piece – only actually kills one person over the entire runtime. They even give him two guns at one point, running along blasting away like a prototypical John Woo character, but not actually hitting a damn thing. His fighting skills are just as non-existent: he gets overwhelmed every single time, and barely gets a punch in – often leaving the fighting to be front-lined by his new sparring mate.
Thankfully the introduction of the new Internal Affairs Sergeant Lorna Cole is actually fairly effective. Although the Internal Affairs angle is afforded almost as little prominence as the street gang violence (i.e. shamefully flimsy side-stories), it’s a solid way of giving Riggs a new playmate, and Cole proves to be more than a match for him. With that in mind, and despite the fact that I’m not her biggest fan, Rene Russo is simply perfectly cast in this position. Indeed, she went on to become typecast in this kind of role, which was not such a bad thing – in everything from In the Line of Fire to Outbreak, Get Shorty to the effective remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, her ability to match her male counterparts in terms of wit, charisma, intellect and even sometimes physical presence, was well-utilised.
“Close?! Close is a lingerie shop without a front window.”
The early scenes between Riggs and Cole are brilliantly-observed – with Cole more than holding her own on the verbal front, and doing some wonderful face-pulling-gags to get under his skin – and then chemistry between the two of them is undeniable (they would reteam for the effective kidnapping thriller Ransom, reviewed earlier this month here), even if their relationship often feels more of the friends-with-benefits kind (like Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise a la Knight and Day) than the romantic kind. Afforded another movie to consolidate their relationship, the dramatic twist where she gets shot by deadly ‘cop-killer’ armoured bullets would have been even more effective (similarly, it would have made more sense for Riggs to have mellowed after meeting Cole, rather than before) – but it’s still a high point, and allows for a brief glimpse of the so-named ‘Lethal Weapon’ of the last two films: angry Riggs avenging what he assumes to be her death.
The movie is really owned by Danny Glover, however. Unlike the first two movies – which were primarily about Riggs’s character development and dealing with his past, carrying with them side-lined stories for Murtaugh involving a rekindled energy for the job, and a racial element, respectively – this one side-lines Riggs’s story in favour of what’s happening to Murtaugh. Sure, Riggs has a new lady in his life, but that pales into insignificance when compared to what Murtaugh as to go through (a point which Riggs himself actually makes at one point in the movie).
Murtaugh’s mere days away from retirement, facing old age, and in the process of selling his family home of many years. His children have grown up – his eldest daughter is trying to be a bona fide actress, and his eldest son, Nick, is dealing with the fact that some of his friends have dropped out of school to join street gangs – and his partner is not making his life easier: getting them busted back to beat cop duty and jeopardising Murtaugh’s pension can’t have been something he would have appreciated. He’s put on weight; he suffered an accidental discharge of his weapon at the police station – things aren’t going great for him. Perhaps the nail in the coffin, however – what sends him over the edge – is his shooting of Nick’s school friend: the one who joined the gang. It’s a dramatic moment (one which has Riggs’s repeated “He’s dead, Roger” words echoing the similar words he spoke when his own girlfriend was killed in Lethal Weapon 2) that is arguably deserving of a better movie around it.
“Look, that kid was a killer, alright?! That wasn’t a Tinker Toy in his hand, that was a machine pistol with twin carbies’ and all the trimmings. He would’ve drilled you, me, and anybody that came along. You had no choice.”
“On no, it didn’t happen to you, Riggs, it happened to me! I killed that kid, I killed that boy. Oh yeah, oh you killed a lot of people – you kill a f*ckin’ lot of people. You ever kill a baby? You ever kill a boy like Nick?”
The ensuing downward spiral of Murtaugh is still barely afforded enough time to fully develop, but does get some exploration, culminating in a brilliant dialogue scene aboard Murtaugh’s boat, where he drunkenly explodes in front of Riggs, who, in returns, offers back some of his own best lines from the entire movie.
The reality is that Lethal Weapon 3 has some great ideas; some great sub-stories and character development, but unfortunately they are almost all smothered by the grandstanding stunt spectacles and prevalent comedy moments that the filmmakers (and writers) clearly wanted to take precedence. Still, I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie – it was the first Lethal Weapon entry that I was old enough to see at the cinema, and I enjoyed every minute of it – and it’s definitely got the fun factor turned up to 11 (even if that’s at the expense of the more dramatic elements) and it’s undeniably entertaining to listen to the almost persistent banter between the still-perfectly-matched Gibson and Glover.
You’ll probably remember Lethal Weapon 3 for the “grab the cat!” explosive prologue; the armoured car chase; the armour-piercing (“ex-”)cop-killer bullets; Leo’s odd peroxide blonde hair, and visit from the proctologist; the scar-comparing flirting between Riggs and Cole; the villain’s moustache; the subway-shootout-and-motorcycle car chase; and the fiery conclusion. But you should remember Lethal Weapon 3 for the underused gang violence undercurrent and the character development of Murtaugh: having to deal with shooting one of his son’s school-friends. The more serious, dramatic elements in the series would be increasingly marginalised, however, and this film was definitely several steps in the direction of the almost-family-friendly action-comedy style that the filmmakers wanted to go with, and arguably concluded with, in the final entry – Lethal Weapon 4.
“I hope that when I do retire your new partner is just like you.”
“That won’t happen to me because there are winners and there are losers, and God wouldn’t do that to me.”
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