Lethal Weapon (1987)
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells Rock
Around fifteen years ago, I could watch the Lethal Weapon films over and over again without ever becoming bored. During this most recent re-watch of Richard Donner's classic Shane Black penned original, I did have a slight inescapable feeling that its impact has been somewhat diminished by Father Time, and some elements veered towards cheesy rather than (what was once) cool. Don't get me wrong, its still a stone cold classic (more on why later) but certain parts of the film suddenly feel like the wrong side of the 80s. For example, there's all the macho posturing stuff - Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey) demonstrating his high pain threshold with a cigarette lighter flame, Riggs showing off his gun skills at target practise to a bemused Murtaugh and the rather silly "shot at the title" homoerotic fumble between Riggs and Joshua during the finale. Also, if truth be told, the passage of time also hasn't been particularly kind to the action set pieces of Lethal Weapon, and there was better to follow in the subsequent later entries.
Whilst the buddy cop sub-genre goes as far back as The Naked City (1948) and Kurosawa's Stray Dog (1949); and the 70s and early 80s had the liked of Freebie and The Bean (1974), 48 Hours (1982) and Running Scared (1986); If I looked up "buddy cop movie" in the dictionary, I'd expect to find Lethal Weapon as the top entry that properly established the formula which would set the benchmark for others to follow. To put it simply, the dynamic interplay between Mel Gibson's Riggs and Danny Glover's Murtaugh is absolute dynamite, and built the foundations for the sequels in which their petty bickering would become a trademark of the series. The pairing of those two actors is one of those moments in Hollywood history (much like De Niro and Grodin in Midnight Run) which can be looked back upon, and say "Yeah, that was just perfect" (thank you Marion Dougherty). It's not just the bickering, but also the exchanges between the characters during the quieter, reflective moments which makes the difference. Murtaugh eventually becomes the Yang to Riggs' Yin - bringing balance, humanity and a reason to live back to the latter's life.
To counterbalance the parts that have dated, Lethal Weapon is still chockfull of greatness which make it the genre classic that it is aside from the perfect chemistry of the leads. On his own merits, Gibson is an absolute revelation as the self loathing, suicidal cop with a bigger death wish than Charles Bronson. Off the back of Mad Max, Gibson took craziness to the next level - treading a thin line between insanity and over-acting, but just about getting it right. Although his character would be inevitably toned down in the later films, the original incarnation of Riggs is a cauldron of boiling volatility, someone who could switch from light to dark at the flip of a switch (inside his head). The classic moments that define Riggs are still as great as they always were, such as The Three Stooges inspired opening undercover drug bust, and the How Not to Do a Suicide Police Negotiaton/"Do You Really Wanna Jump???" sequence.
And then there's Shane Black's superb screenplay - Riggs and Murtaugh would only be half as effective if they didn't have Black's dialogue, full of pithy putdowns, sarcastic retorts and classic one liners (you know the ones I mean). At the risk of celluloid blasphemy, it could be argued that Black repeated the trick to even greater effect in his script for Tony Scott's The Last Boy Scout, but thats something to talk about for another day! The action sequences in Lethal Weapon that still hold up really well today include the daring (but ultimately futile) rescue mission of Rianne Murtaugh - where Riggs gets to utilise his sniper skills; and the brutal electro-shock torture of Riggs at the hands of 80s henchman stalwart Al Leong (who has the distinction of playing a baddie in both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard) culminating with the former going postal on the LA freeway. That's another great thing about Lethal Weapon - like most of the classic 80s action cinema (Die Hard, Predator, Robocop), it wasn't afraid to be adult orientated, deserving every inch of its (then) 18 certificate. Lethal Weapon 2 still retained much of the darkness - the plot also very cleverly ties in the South African bad guys with events learned in the first film - but by the time of part 3 and 4, the films had inevitably become more family friendly.
We all acknowledge Lethal Weapon as a classic 80s actioner, so I'll finish this retrospective with some observations instead. Firstly, its odd now to watch a film with a lead character that smokes so much, as the habit in contemporary movies has been all but extinguished (ahem). Rigg's status as a 'registered lethal weapon' (jokingly put to him by Murtaugh) could be open to debate (at least where authenticity is concerned) - I can accept that he could be a military trained sharpshooter, but I cannot for a minute buy him as a martial arts expert. Although we see him perform a couple of (pre UFC popularity) Jiu-jitsu MMA style manoeuvres on Mr. Joshua during the finale, Gibson is unconvincing as someone apparently trained in a variety of unarmed combat disciplines (boxing aside). At the time of shooting, Gibson had yet to fully hone his American accent, as an Antipodean twang can clearly still be heard in Riggs' voice. Finally, despite constantly proclaiming to be "getting too old for this sh*t", and his character always on the brink of retirement (on and off throughout the series), Danny Glover was just 40 years old when Lethal Weapon was released!