Lethal Weapon (1987)
Release Date: March 6th, 1987 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Richard Donner Actors: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitchell Ryan, Tom Atkins, Traci Wolfe, Jackie Swanson, Lycia Naff
ike “Die Hard” (1988), “Lethal Weapon” takes place during Christmastime (opening to the tune of “Jingle Bell Rock”), though the predominance is so much less that this aspect is often forgotten. And to think that “Lethal Weapon,” made one year prior, isn’t uniformly considered a holiday picture. It would seem that festivities and heavy-hitting, macho adventures go hand in hand. Taking a cue from “48 Hrs.” (1982) and “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984), “Lethal Weapon” centers on an unlikely partnership comprised of initial opposites who slowly adapt to their unwilling collaborator’s differences in ethics, use of force, and risk-taking. It’s a concept reused and rearranged again and again in modern actioners, including “Speed” (1994) and “Rush Hour” (1998). Clearly, the buddy-cop pairing infused with intense mayhem, marginal murder/mystery topics, and regular comical catch phrases, continues to be a popular choice for rip-roaring thrillers.
Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is an aging family man and sensible veteran police officer just trying to make it through the day unscathed. Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is a suicidal loose cannon cop who doesn’t care if he lives to see the end of the day. Reluctantly thrown together to solve the curious death of a banker’s daughter (a nude skydive opening scene), the antithetic duo uncovers a dangerous ring of drug smugglers employing ex-military mercenaries. After a tragic turn of events, the mission becomes personal and the mismatched investigators must learn to trust one another as they wage a two-man war against a deadly criminal organization.
Spawning three sequels, each staying authentic to the original in tone and style, “Lethal Weapon” capitalizes on the amusing matching of two distinct soldiers who view life and their jobs with highly contrasting beliefs. It’s entertaining to see such an odd couple forced to work together, especially when their predicaments steadily turn direr. It can be broken down into the basest of contradictions: Murtaugh has just turned 50, Riggs is younger and fitter; Murtaugh has a stable family and a loving wife, Riggs is alone, having lost his true love, and now bitterly grieves to the point of suicide; Murtaugh is an even thinker and operates by-the-books, Riggs is a death-defying daredevil and occasional vigilante; Murtaugh is black, Riggs is white (an obvious commercial decision). The film’s success relies heavily on the character development, familial correlations, and believability of tough-guy male bonding, in addition to their remarkable perseverance under grueling torture, through lengthy physical pursuits, and while engaging in hand-to-hand combat. The action choreography and set pieces generally only pop up when the leads aren’t shaping their friendship, allowing amusing humanity to blend with the crime-solving hijinks.
Although the headliners are enjoyable enough, a strong villain is noticeably absent. The merciless Shadow Company assassin Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey) makes for a memorable Psychos-R-Us henchman, but his superior, the conspiring general (Mitchell Ryan), is wholly forgettable. Nevertheless, and despite dated electric guitar and moody saxophone riffs, “Lethal Weapon” is an enduring buddy film, brilliantly combining drama, comedy, adventure, bloodshed, machinegun showdowns in the middle of busy highways, and excessive property destruction. Thanks to director Richard Donner (“Superman,” “The Omen,” “Ladyhawke”) and writer Shane Black (“The Last Boy Scout,” “Last Action Hero,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight”), who effectively balance jokes, suspense, and stunts, “Lethal Weapon” is one of the most compelling action films of the ‘80s.
– The Massie Twins