Friday, August 30, 2013

The Lethal Weapon Films

This is another re-working of an article I wrote for The Agony Booth a few years back though we'll be skipping the Die Hard stuff in order to focus on what has become, by sheer virtue of ending when it did, the more consistent franchise.

Like Phantasm, Lethal Weapon was another movie my brother introduced me to and I ended up loving every minute of it.   The franchise as a whole is actually fairly consistent in that it had more or less the same cast and crew for all four movies, kept its tone relatively level (over the top action and humor with a little serious stuff thrown in for balance) and the only reason this isn't an entry in the My Favorite Era series is that it's more interesting to consider the entire franchise rather than just the first two films (the third one wouldn't make the cut and the fourth film came out in 1998).

Before we get into the meat of things, a brief recap of the plots:

Lethal Weapon: Cops vs. Vietnam vet drug smugglers.
Lethal Weapon 2: Cops vs. South African diplomat drug smugglers.
Lethal Weapon 3: Cops vs. an ex-cop into weapons smuggling.
Lethal Weapon 4: Cops vs. Triad smugglers. Mainly people and other stuff... I think. Hell, I don’t know.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

In March of 1987, a mid-budget buddy cop film produced by Joel Silver and directed by the man behind The Omen and Superman was unleashed upon the populace. A sleeper hit, it made stars out of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and was (and still is) the best buddy cop movie of all time. Yes, 48 Hrs. is good, and Eddie Murphy is damn funny, but this one has the advantage of a typically insane performance from Gary Busey as the primary villain.

Slightly more serious in tone, it gives us a nice rapport between the two cops, with Martin Riggs being a heartbroken burnout who contemplates suicide on a regular basis and generally acts like a nut, and Roger Murtaugh being the stable family man who’s getting self-conscious about his age.

Gibson and Glover have a wonderful chemistry together, and their back and forth routine never gets grating. It helps that both actors are adept at serious dramatics as well as lighter moments, and come off well in both.

This is the main reason the Rush Hour films never did it for me. In that case, the actors are good at lighter moments (though Jackie Chan is the only funny one), but telling Chris Tucker to put on a serious performance is like begging Keanu Reeves to show emotion. It might happen, but it’s not going to be a pretty sight.

Well, there’s that issue, and the fact that, in general, Chris Tucker absolutely sucks!

The series regulars are also set up nicely, with the police captain being played by Steve Kahan (Richard Donner’s cousin), and the police shrink Dr. Woods (Mary Ellen Trainor). They’ll stick around for the next three movies, with running gags for each, and believe me, this franchise is one that grows recurring cast members like crazy.  Tom Atkins is also his usual solid self as Glover's friend who gets him involved in the main story.

The action is great, though a little muted when compared with what was to come in later sequels. There’s some nice gun play throughout, but the real standout is a climactic one-on-one fight to the death between Riggs and Mr. Joshua (Busey). It’s a real showstopper of a fight, though I have my doubts the LAPD would just stand around and let one of their own beat the shit out of...

Wait, never mind. Never mind.  Let's just move on, shall we?

The film was the sleeper hit of the year, and naturally, a sequel was bound to happen.

Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

In July of 1989 (in the middle of one of the best summer movie seasons in history), the magic was back and Lethal Weapon 2 was unleashed upon audiences. Adopting a more over-the-top tone with more humor and action, the first sequel pits Riggs and Murtaugh against a band of evil South African drug smugglers who hide behind diplomatic immunity.

Riggs falls in love with a sexy Dutch woman named Rika (Patsy Kensit) who works for the bad guys (but doesn’t like them), and the regular cast gets its first addition in the form of Leo Getz (Joe Pesci, right before he got famous). Leo is fairly high on my list of great Joe Pesci performances; it’s a solid number two behind Goodfellas, and in front of My Cousin Vinny. He serves as the best form of comic relief, in that he not only adds to the plot (by way of an amazing coincidence), but he’s also legitimately funny!

Overall, the movie is even better than the first one, with better action, more humor, and a great pace. It does away with the bickering buddy cop stuff for the most part, and shifts it into two good friends giving each other epic amounts of crap. The addition of Leo also helps this movie, as now the guys have someone to kick around together.

There’s a little bit of darkness here and there, as Riggs gets a nasty surprise from the bad guys (turns out they killed his wife, sending him spiraling down to the level we found him at in the first film). And since we’re talking South Africa in the late '80s, race enters the fray as well.  You know, because being slimy murderous drug dealers sometimes just isn't enough.

In general, Lethal Weapon 2 just has better moments than the first one that coalesce into a more satisfying viewing experience: The truck chase with Riggs hanging onto the front fender, Danny Glover offing the main villain as he claims diplomatic immunity after shooting Riggs, the toilet bomb gag... there are just too many great bits.

Lethal Weapon 3 (1992)

The third entry falters, with a sub-par script and a rather annoying stretch where the film more or less grinds to a halt following Murtaugh shooting his son’s gang member friend to death. It’s really a needless development, and comes off as an excuse for Danny Glover to do some actual acting as opposed to just muttering, “I’m too old for this shit!” for two hours.

Granted, there was some social consciousness stuff in the second film, but Richard Donner kept it subtle... sort of. Here though, as I said, he brings the movie to a halt in order to stage a mini-sequel to Boyz n the Hood sandwiched in between the action beats. It stops the movie dead in its tracks, which is not good when the hallmark of your franchise is its relentless pace.

On the other hand, it does have a great opening sequence with an impressive building explosion, and Rene Russo makes a nice addition to the regulars as Riggs’ new love interest, an IAD officer named Lorna Cole. Joe Pesci is back too, though if you really stop and think about it, he has no reason at all to be here. Seriously.  I also dig the last thirty minutes or so which are pretty much non stop action.

The villain is also rather weak when compared to the ones in the first two. Stuart Wilson does a decent enough job, but when you’ve had hilariously evil South Africans and Gary Busey, a Brit playing a disgraced ex-cop selling stolen guns to gang members doesn’t quite cut it.

Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)

Six years after the third movie, Warner Brothers was in dire need of a big release for the summer of ’98. Oh, they had a few other entries. Quest for Camelot. The Negotiator. The Avengers. The fact that two of those three are dissected on The Agony Booth should tell you how well that lineup did.

Hell, The Negotiator is the best of the three, and even then it’s a little hokey. I mean, I paid to see it, but that truly proves nothing. I also paid to see Lethal Weapon 4 in the theater. Twice.

Lethal Weapon 4 was rushed into production in January of ’98, and was released in July of the same year. Yes, you read that right. The fact that it even works at all is a goddamned miracle.

The plot, what little there is, revolves around Riggs and Murtaugh going up against a Triad gang led by Jet Li, while also dealing with two pregnancies (Lorna, and Murtaugh’s oldest daughter), several running gags involving Murtaugh, Chris Rock on hand as a motor-mouthed cop (think Chris Tucker, only likable), and Joe Pesci is back as Leo. And no, he doesn’t have jack to do with the story here, either.

So we have an overstuffed cast, a vague plot, way too many subplots, and more bantering than any movie should be able to get away with. Seriously, the main reason I never recapped this one for Agony Booth was that once I started on it, I realized just how many times the word “banter” or variations of it were being used after only a few pages, got pissed off and abandoned it.

The cast, fortunately, is very good at improv so they do manage to come off fairly well.   Everyone is pretty good, Li makes a decent enough villain and while the quality script may not be there, the casts' natural chemistry is.

The action is good throughout, with a nice opening shootout, a good finale with Jet Li, and an excellent freeway chase that I would argue makes the one in The Matrix Reloaded look rather blah. Mainly because it is, but that’s not important right now!

The movie is truly a mess, albeit a very watchable one. Though, it’s oddly uncomfortable in hindsight when you have a character played by Mel Gibson making racist remarks towards some of the Chinese characters. Maybe he was secretly trying to tell us something about himself.

Regardless, the fourth film is a fitting sendoff for the franchise.  It never really had a completely terrible movie (unlike Die Hard which had that crappy fifth movie earlier this year) and in the case of the fourth film, was sort of a farewell to the CGI-light action movie.   It might not be as iconic (or as well written) as Die Hard, but it's still a very solid franchise that is interesting to look back at.

Provided you can still stand the sight of Mel Gibson*.

*I am looking forward to him as a villain in the next Machete and Expendables films however.

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.