Action, adventure, comedy, thrills, suspense and drama – there isn’t much that Lethal Weapon doesn’t have to offer. It is one of the best buddy-buddy cop thrillers of all-time, but to pigeon-hole it as nothing more than that would be to do it an injustice, as the excellent casting, electric performances, impressive real-life stunts and A-grade action have allowed it to transcend genre restrictions and become a much-loved movie classic.
Now celebrating its 25th Anniversary, it seems like the perfect opportunity to revisit the movie, look at the ingredients that made it so special, the surprising potency of its first sequel, and the enjoyable third and fourth instalments in the series which never quite managed to capture the magic of those first two.
Of course Lethal Weapon was the movie which made Mel Gibson an international superstar, and its sequels increasingly attempted to bolster his star power across the decades of his career. We’ll likely never get another Lethal Weapon film (Gibson’s fallen a long way since the last entry, and now even his good movies appear to go ignored) or, worse still, we’ll get some PG-13 reboot directed by McG and starring Zac Efron, but at least we’ve still got four solid entries to look back on and take pride of place in our film collections.
“Well, what do you wanna’ hear, man?! Do you wanna’ hear that sometimes I think about eatin’ a bullet?! Huh?! Well, I do. I even got a special bullet for the occasion with a hollow point; make sure it blows the back of my goddamned head out and do the job right! Every single day I wake up and think of a reason not to do it. Every single day. You know why I don’t do it?! This is gonna’ make you laugh! You know why I don’t do it?! The Job. Doin’ the job.”
Potentially psychotic maverick cop Martin Riggs is newly partnered with reliable veteran and family-man, Roger Murtaugh. Murtaugh’s just turned 50, and doesn’t really want any more stress in his life, and Riggs appears to be a loose cannon, with nothing to lose. Yet when the simple supposed suicide that they are investigating spirals into a much grander case involving heroin smugglers who have their own private army, it’s up to these two mismatched cops to put aside their differences and take down the bad guys.
A quarter of a Century later and, if this were the synopsis of a new movie, it would be little more than a walking cliché. However, back in 1987 this was a landmark project, and the finished product was nothing short of a perfect confluence of ingredients, each ripe for the taking.
Writer Shane Black was just 23 when he penned the screenplay; written in 6 weeks, it took his agent only 3 days to sell the script, attracting the attention of director Richard Donner, who had already made a name for himself on the Superman series (which he was unceremoniously removed from until 2006’s ‘Donner Cut’ of Superman II), and who would promptly go on to be widely recognised for his Lethal Weapon films and for his work with Mel Gibson.
Indeed Donner is generally regarded as having not only set the mould for all future superhero movies (from Burton’s Batman to Nolan’s Dark Knight; from Raimi’s Spiderman to Singer’s X-Men) – but also having single-handedly revitalised the buddy-cop formula with Lethal Weapon.
Casting Gibson, however, was a fairly daring decision: although he was far from the controversial entity that he is now, at the time he was a fairly unknown entity – famous only for his Mad Max films (predominantly The Road Warrior), but largely inexperienced when it came to mainstream Hollywood productions.
Glover was almost as much of a gamble: he’d proved his dramatic chops with The Color Purple, but he wasn’t exactly a household name, and indeed the Lethal Weapon films would become easily the most prominent entries in his film history.
Putting them together, however, and giving them the stellar script from Shane Black (The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), was a stroke of genius. Reportedly, within just a few hours of meeting for a script read-through, the two had hit it off as if they were old friends, igniting the script with chemistry, wit and drama. Indeed the pairing of Gibson and Glover remains arguably the greatest – and certainly the longest-running – buddy-buddy cop partnership in film history.
“When I was 19, I did a guy in Laos from a thousand yards out. It was a rifle shot in high wind. Maybe eight or even ten guys in the world could have made that shot. It’s the only thing I was ever good at.”
Whilst Gibson may also be remembered for his Mad Max characterisation (so defining that it could make it hard for us to swallow Tom Hardy as his replacement in the reboot/sequel Fury Road), for his directing and starring in Braveheart, for his controversial Passion of the Christ project, or just for his recent personal problems, his characterisation of volatile detective Martin Riggs remains an unquestionable defining point in his career.
Bringing palpable intensity beneath a seemingly relaxed, nonchalant exterior, Gibson’s Riggs was very much the Lethal Weapon of the title, a highly-skilled ex-special forces soldier-turned-cop whose personal problems – the recent death of his wife – left him on the edge, suicidal, and with nothing left to live for but doing the job.
Gibson’s performance was not only utterly convincing in terms of his weapons handling and martial arts moves (he would undergo two months of physical training, including various – then unusual – martial arts such as Ju-Jitsu and Capoera), but also in perfect comic timing, natural charisma, and sheer screen presence.
Playing against your usual hero type, Riggs was ostensibly your average everyday guy, who just turned into a deadly killer when pushed too far. The part included some unusually heavyweight dramatic content too, and his ‘attempted suicide scene’ was so good that it earned him his 1990 role as Hamlet, which, to this day, still remains a surprisingly impressive take on the classic Shakespearian Prince.
“I’m too old for this sh*t!”
Glover may not have seemed like an obvious choice for a co-starring action-thriller role – just 40 at the time, he still made for a fairly convincing 50 year old – but he somehow managed to hold his own opposite Gibson, bringing dignity and gravitas to the part, and making Murtaugh the perfect stoic foil to Rigg’s Chaplin-esque antics and cheeky humour. Of course it helped no end that he made for a natural family man, further allowing us to be convinced by Riggs’s gradual inclusion into that family unit. It was the perfect partnership.
Family would become a key element for not only the characters and the stories, but also for the cast themselves – many of them working together on all four films. From Murtaugh’s wife and children, to their Captain and fellow cops at the precinct, to the filmmakers behind the scenes, the Lethal Weapon franchise was all about family; a point which Richard Donner would remain true to for well over a decade, and which was part of the reason why Gibson would refuse to return for a fifth film without Donner on-board.
“You do this my way. You shoot, you shoot to kill, get as many of them as you can. All you gotta’ do is just not miss.”
Finding a worthy adversary is always a challenge on thrillers like this, as often your heroes shine only as brightly as their opponents allow, with the strength of the villains in, for example, the Die Hard series, directly correlating to the strength of the movies themselves. Luckily Mitchell Ryan’s General McAllister brought both intellect and command presence to the bad guys, whilst his lead henchman Mr. Joshua, would prove a strong physical adversary for Riggs.
Whilst Gary Busey may not exactly be the first name that pops into your head when you think of ex-Special Forces mercenary, he actually does pretty well opposite Gibson, particularly in the final fight (ironically, the younger Busey would go on to fit naturally into a much more Murtaugh-like partner role in 1991’s Point Break, where Glover would conversely follow in Arnie’s footsteps for a more action-driven project: the underrated Predator sequel).
Of course the Lethal Weapon franchise would go on to become synonymous with the huge stunts and big explosions, and, even though this was just the first entry, shot on a restrictive budget of $15 Million, and arguably testing the waters for where they would go next, there were plenty of grand, jumping-from-buildings, stunts and things genuinely blowing up. Long before CG would take hold and largely remove the need for any kind of practical effects or stunt work, Lethal Weapon would boast some of the biggest crashes and bangs in Hollywood.
The film kicked off with a Donner-trademark (c.f. Superman) fall off a high-rise which was actually performed by a stunt person – albeit from a lower altitude, obviously – who landed on an inflated crash-bag that had been painted to resemble the street below, complete with cars and sidewalk. So good was the stuntwork and filming that it was almost impossible to tell that she wasn’t hitting a real car.
Then there’s the suicide-jumper who Riggs attempts to talk down, before handcuffing him and forcing him to jump – a move which, through clever camera angles, looks to be a genuine nose-dive until you realise that the police have inflated a giant cushion to catch them, and that Riggs was actually effecting a controlled jump.
“I don’t make things difficult. That’s the way they get... all by themselves.”
There would actually only be a couple of explosions – but they’d be good ones, with a house blown to smithereens and a car later hit by a bus, flipped, and blown to pieces when the grenades inside are ignited. That wasn’t the end to the action, though, as Lethal Weapon would prove to be one of the most action-packed thrillers of the 80s.
A few years ago this ago was increased – at least in so far as Lethal Weapon was concerned – with new ‘Director’s Cuts’ being released for the first three movies. Thus far, these have not made it to any Blu-ray release (although the additional scenes can be viewed separately in the extras), which is a shame considering the ease with which they could include both versions via seamless branching.
Now, whilst I don’t think that the any of the Lethal Weapon series Director’s Cuts are superior versions, one of the scenes that certainly should have stayed in is the extra action sequence where Riggs takes on a schoolyard sniper – it’s also the reason why in the Theatrical Cut we find that Roger, on meeting Riggs for the first time, remarks that he had read about Riggs’s heroic work the day before. It’s one of the few action scenes that was cut from any of the three director’s cuts (for the first three movies), and it was a wrong move.
We’re not talking about PG-13 action, either, as we have become accustomed to these days – this was back in the days of Die Hard, Point Break and Robocop, when Hollywood still made quality action-thrillers that were clearly designed for adult audiences; films that would all go on to become classics.
What makes Lethal Weapon a classic, however, is more than just the action; the thrills; and the stunts, and, despite the 25 years that have passed since – dating the sunglasses, the clothes, the haircuts (Riggs’s mullet, the ridiculous perms) and the charmingly hilarious sax-heavy score – the film endures and endears in every respect, riding high on its stellar script and well-constructed plot; drawing you in through its excellent characterisations and the intensity of the performances therein, engaging you through both the palpable tension and the genuine camaraderie.
Remember Lethal Weapon for the impossible smiley face at the shooting range, Riggs’s “shoot me!” and “you really wanna’ jump” almost-suicide moments, Mr. Joshua’s burning arm, Murtaugh’s wife’s cooking and his kids’ rapping, the desert sniper scene, Endo’s electric shock treatment, the salt-in-the-wound “go spit” torture scene, the foot-vs-car chase on the freeway, and the final Special Forces vs. Special Forces fight.
For every memorable action scene, there’s a keen bit of dialogue to accompany it, the endlessly quotable script sticking with you for as long as the body blows and hollow-points do. Lethal Weapon was the perfect start to the definitive buddy-buddy action-comedy-thriller series, and remains one of my personal favourite movies of all time.
“You ever met anybody you didn’t kill, Riggs?!”
“Well I haven’t killed you yet.”
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