Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Lethal Weapon, reviewed backwards

This isn't an effort to show off. I'm just in one of those moods, so I'm actually reviewing a movie before I watch it again. Isn't that avant-garde of me? Aren't "avant-garde" things sometimes just "stupid?" Well, I've toyed with my style more than usual lately, and I chose a pic I know fairly well. I think I can stand on what I write about Lethal Weapon - and if I'm off the mark, I'll learn it during my post-review rewatch. Finally, I get to prove myself wrong...

For a lot of people, the 80s are a nostalgic time in American cinema - and not because that decade introduced "franchises" and "properties" that are still being used today. Sure, there were lots of great romantic comedies, like Splash and Big. And there were plenty of fun teen movies, like The Breakfast Club and License to Drive. But for many, the 80s were a golden period for action films.

Arnold Schwarzenegger ruled the roost, so to speak, with a string of exciting pictures like Predator, The Running Man, Terminator, and Commando. Bruce Willis transitioned from a bartender to a tv star, then made one of the best action films ever, 1988's Die Hard. It's extra-impressive, as many people thought they'd already seen one of the best action films ever just one year before - Lethal Weapon.

He's a con's worst nightmare - an LA cop who grew up in Australia.

The three names you're about to read are all people who are, rightly, a big deal in Hollywood: Richard Donner, Mel Gibson, and Joel Silver.
  • Silver appears in so many credits as "producer," it sounds like he has a monopoly on the industry - the Predator and Die Hard films, The Matrix, the new Sherlock Holmes franchise... If it had guns and explosions and at least one big-name star, he was likely involved. 
  • Donner is known for a wide body of work, especially this series, the first two Superman pictures, Scrooged, and The Goonies.
  • Gibson hasn't needed an introduction since 1987, when Lethal Weapon came out. If Mad Max hadn't made him a household name, this picture absolutely did. Now, of course, no one wants to introduce, much less meet, him...
Yet the smaller names are probably what made LW a guaranteed hit with audiences - Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) wrote an excellent screenplay. Danny Glover's talent and presence pulled in everyone who didn't care about Mel. And Gary Busey played one of the best "support villains" of the decade; he compares neatly to Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys. Movie-going audiences never stood a chance. So, plot:

It's Christmas-time in LA, and we see a pretty young girl. She's wearing so little that she must have just had sex with someone. She takes some drugs, climbs onto the railing of her balcony, and falls straight onto a car below. Later, Narcotics detective Martin Riggs (Gibson) subdues a bunch of criminals in a pine tree lot. He handles matters well enough, then unleashes his rage and nearly shoots an unarmed crook. Later at home, we see him cry over a picture and put a gun in his mouth. It's a very "angsty" time of year, huh?

Shane Black probably contributed the most important piece: a jazzed-up version of the standard buddy film premise. Here, detective Roger Murtaugh (Glover) is a black cop - a stable, older family man, close to retirement. He's paired with Riggs, a white cop who's 13 years younger and quite unstable, still grieving his wife's death.

The humor and charm of this picture is perfectly established by the way the two leads meet. It's Murtaugh's 50th birthday, and he already feels conflicted about his age and career. He's in the office being briefed on his new partner. The whole time, he's noticing a shady guy just standing in the Homicide room, speaking to no one; then the guy pulls out a pistol.

Roger springs into action, shouting "Gun! Gun!" He charges straight at the guy dressed like he fishes off a local pier, who himself looks around wildly for a threat. As the man in a cap and cheap jacket sees Murtaugh coming at him, he flips the cop onto his back and aims his gun. Then the captain explains that this dude is Roger's new partner.

Ha! That red-tinted Glover image looks just like Predator!

Lethal Weapon uses the interaction between the leads beautifully. Roger has been warned that Martin is a head-case. The older cop suspects that the young kid just wants to get his "psycho pension," (?) and leave the job. Sure, it's mostly ill-defined rumor, but the man has kids and a wife to think about, and partners like that can get you killed.

Murtaugh isn't just worried or scared - he's pissed! He's too close to retirement to babysit a ticking timebomb. And he's too old for this #%*!@$! Which is something that he amusingly tells the world many times...

Riggs, on the other hand, is mostly charming and funny and sorta quirky. He's perfectly cool when his buttons aren't pushed - but he's wild and barely controlled at other times. Mel's part is both welcoming and mocking of his skeptical older partner, ragging on him for carrying an old-school .38 revolver instead of a modern 9mm. There's tension and caution and a little bit of levity, and neither man could imagine that they might become best friends.

And the old Gibson appeal can't be understated. He's manic, yet good with kids. He hums to himself and uses Three Stooges' routines to distract baddies. Even if you're terribly dense, by the time we see a shot-in-the-shoulder Roger telling Martin to take a shortcut because the bad guy's off to the freeway, it's clear: Riggs was the sort of role that was designed to appeal strongly to men and women alike.

So what happens? Well, it turns out everything leads back to "the Vietnam Conflict." That pretty, terribly young girl at the beginning? Her drugs were poisoned, and our two favorite cops are assigned to the case. She turns out to be the daughter of Roger's old 'Nam buddy, Hunsacker. There's nothing like telling the man who valiantly saved your life that his daughter turned to porn, prostitution, and drugs before she was killed. Martin himself is pretty knowledgeable on the topic, as he served in the special forces in Laos.

The partners seem to neatly-resolve this case, but they go to check on one last witness and nearly get blown to bits. Then they start to realize that former 'Nam soldiers are running a huge drugs-and-guns-ring, and that Hunsacker may actually be involved. And soon everything grows somehow more tense, more dangerous, and more violent.

The real strengths of this picture are the charisma and acting talents of the two leads. Murtaugh and Riggs are both treated in a relatively natural way. It's a difficult thing to deal with, killing people for your country as a soldier - it's another altogether for Martin to flatly announce that shooting people is his best skill. Now, he's had his family torn away from him, so there's nothing to ground him. When he's not under pressure, he behaves like a well-rounded everyman - but is this just because of fading memories of what "normal life" is like?

Glover comes out better, as he's the more experienced actor and I've seen him do more varied roles than Mel. Roger is even more of an everyman - he's crusty, because he's getting older and has more problems and responsibilities than his new frenemy/buddy. As much as Gibson is (rightly) out of favor now, here he's a good-looking young dude who nails every joke, as well as all the hardened/haunted feelings he must convey. The banter between the pair is excellent, and invests the audience fully in the characters.

The action is also well-choreographed and well-filmed. LW is exciting, and creates a lot of suspense for the audience. The pace of the movie is very strong, with good beats to let the viewer rest between the more intense scenes. It's all the better, as the time off is often used so Riggs can get to know his hard-assed partner and start to become more stable because of a new connection to this solid man and his family.

So why would someone not like Lethal Weapon? It's a very "LA" movie - by which I mean that it's impossibly cynical. Believe it or not, the heavy cynicism doesn't just come from the suicidal guy whose wife died in a car wreck - Roger's in on it, too. Hell, we even see Hunsacker give Murtaugh a copy of his daughter's sex tape (!) so he can chase down some leads; it's hard to get more jaded than "I run a bank but my kid started hooking and doing porn and drugs, just because..."

And there is a massive dose of standard cop film violence. It would seem over the top to many, but it's also punctuated with threats of rape, actual (and inventive) torture, and children in peril. This is the sort of movie that gives people an excuse for vengeance, instead of the far harder task of applying justice; it's worse because the excuses for these "justified killings" are contrived and immature. I mean, a bad guy is caught, then invited to a fist fight with Martin.

Murtaugh is a black man in LA, and even in 1987 should be aware of the bad image of police beating on a trapped man - yet he encourages and helps Riggs in this. I mean, sure, it's a fair fight. Still, these are peace officers who want to beat on the bad guy when they have another choice. Roger stops other cops from interfering with the words, "I'm in charge," and "[Busey] just killed two of our men." I guess that's when you lose the right to custodial interrogation, or not being killed outside of self-defense...

For the real haters, the film finds a way to go further. After Busey loses a street fight in a mud pit, Roger has an awesome line - "Get that shit off my lawn!" - then the story provides an excuse for the two "good" cops to actually murder the villain. They do it together, with two bullets fired simultaneously, Riggs and Murtaugh almost homo-erotically wrapped around each other. Yeah, that guy shoulda died, and never... been forced to turn on other major heroin distributors before living out his regrets behind bars.

So... best case scenario, this inspired John Woo's The Killer. Worst case, it inspired some guys to find the barest excuse to take a life or beat on someone after they'd given up. I guess men are more attractive and virile when they're on the edge.

So yeah, LW's a cynical, misanthropic, potentially-totalitarian nightmare. But with a heart. They all eat Christmas dinner together and Martin has a dog, so I guess everyone's gonna be ok...

It's exactly the sort of "tortured" stuff you've come to expect from Mel Gibson after everything that the public has heard about him lately. It's simplistic and troubling. In fact, if you stop to think about it, you'd never want these guys to be the police officers in your town; maybe Roger, but certainly not under these circumstances.

And when glibly debating murder scenarios with his partner, Mel notes that maybe the young girl from the start had sex with the female prostitute whose house blew up. Mel comments that the idea is "disgusting." While it's refreshing to see humor that isn't sexualizing two female best friends, like an MTV clip, I don't think that Mel's comment represents the world-view we'd want from a damaged, yet cool, soul. A mere "not my thing," would've sufficed. 

Finally, the music is even more of a hilarious 80s time capsule than the rest of the picture. Sure, there are a lot of Xmas tunes, like in McTiernan's Die Hard and Donner's Scrooged. The rest of the soundtrack has a ton of saxophone and guitar solos (a first, I think for blockbuster action), because apparently that shows how "ragged" and "on the edge" everything is. The soundtrack seems more appropriate for an adult picture, which, I guess has resonance with the opening? Or... it's a motif? Well, it's an interesting choice, that's for certain.

And the closing theme! It has synths, a tune that's half country (?) and half ballad rock. Even more, it's done in an oddly-paced singing style that's cranked up for maximum "tuffness" (like the voice of "the montage song" from South Park). It's all the worse because Honeymoon Suite's eponymous tune strains to use the picture's title (that was a real 80s thing), and comes up with:
When love's alive, it sets you free/When it's gone, it's plain to see/How even love can become... a lethal weapon 
How to choose just one snark? "This heart is registered as a lethal weapon!"

I nearly died from laughing. I suppose all those things together practically qualify this flick as a guilty pleasure. After my rewatch, I'll have to consider adding that tag...

If you're as numb to violence as most people who've been watching Hollywood for the last 20-odd years, Lethal Weapon's excesses might not bother you. And anyone could overlook these incredibly dark, uber-gritty aspects because they're taken in by the great effects and action sequences (real stunts! no CGI!), as well as the humor and interplay between the leads.

Later entries in the franchise followed the rule of diminishing returns - and Mel's growing ego. Yet this picture holds up quite well in isolation from the later installments. This movie served as a great inspiration at the time, and it's worth noting that Die Hard 3 actually failed at doing with Samuel L Jackson and Bruce Willis what LW so smoothly handled with Glover and Gibson here.


  1. Wow - what an exhaustive look back at the defining "buddy cop" film. I'm still not sure if you love it, like it, or are bothered by much of what goes on in it, though. You say that it "holds up well," but also find yourself alternately laughing at or bothered by it. I suppose I see where you're coming from, though, and I also suppose that those feelings aren't mutually exclusive.

    It's probably mainly because I saw it first (hell, I was 11 in 1987 and didn't have cable, so it's not like this was something I was able to watch at the time), but I've always preferred the 2nd to the original. It's certainly a bit lighter, and when I go back to the original, I'm a bit bummed out at how dark it is at times. I realize that's part of what makes it great and at the same time bothers people about the sequels (which indeed got progressively sillier), but I can't help myself. Perhaps I'm just suckered in by Patsy Kensit and the more memorable screenplay.

    Awesome review.

  2. Thanks, Dylan! I loved LW 1, & it hasn't lost much with time. It's still OTT & ludicrously dark, but the humor & charm are too strong. Glover was perfectly cast. & yeah, I had all those reactions bc it's hard not laugh at Mel calling the thought of two women having sex "disgusting" but his homophobia doesn't extend to racism. And they go a long way toward making him super bad-ass, but also haunted and dark and manic. It's so weird looking back, y'know?

    LW2 is weird - it ups the action but leaves out the family in peril stuff. It also ups the humor a lot too. And who doesn't like seeing bigots get mocked and slapped around? But even while having a good time in the theater it was weird that everything was tied back to Riggs' wife. And Riggs himself doesn't seem to be progressing - the first movie suggested that this welcoming family could help heal this broken soldier. LW2 seemed to revel in the angst more...

  3. I think I'd disagree with what you say about Riggs not progressing in #2. He's like the family pet/mascot in that one, and upgrades to quasi-family member by the the third. And he seems much more mentally stable, they just decided to throw some more depression at him with Kensit's death there to remind him of his wife/get him pissed.

  4. I think I'm focusing too much on my memory of Mel shooting people over and over while we hear his internal monologue (!?), a list of people whose deaths the baddies are responsible for. That & Kensit & murdering a diplomat in cold blood are what i recall best.


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