CINEMA CLASSICS: Lethal Weapon (1987)

It’s going to be a bloodthirsty Christmas for Riggs and Murtaugh in Richard Donner’s action classic. 

Who made it?: Richard Donner (Director/Co-Producer), Shane Black (Writer), Joel Silver (Co-Producer), Warner Bros. Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitch Ryan, Tom Atkins, Darlene Love, Traci Wolfe.

Tagline: “If these two can learn to stand each other… the bad guys don’t stand a chance.”

IMDb rating: 7.6/10.

Die Hard always ranks high on lists of favourite “alternative” Christmas films, but it’s not the only Yuletide-themed actioner that deserves attention. Produced in 1987, Lethal Weapon is a bona fide 80s action gem, a skilfully mounted buddy cop adventure laced with razor-sharp, witty dialogue, memorable characters and remarkable bursts of R-rated action. Lethal Weapon may not have invented or revolutionised the buddy cop or action-comedy genres, but it definitely refined both of them, proving to be a top-flight example of the possibilities of the formula when contributions are sound right across the board. Moreover, on top of being a remarkable instance of late-80s action, the film introduces a pair of memorable central characters.

A veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is on the verge of celebrating his 50th birthday, and is consequently eyeing retirement. When a sexy model is found dead after an apparent suicide from her apartment balcony, Murtaugh is pulled into the case and partnered with loose-canon Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) to investigate. Owing to the untimely death of his wife, Riggs is a suicidal hot head; half the police force thinks Riggs is crazy, whilst the other half believe he’s trying to earn a psycho pension. Developing a hesitant friendship, the two find themselves tracking a pair of dangerous drug smugglers, and the “suicide” turns out to be a murder case that’s far more complicated than initially imagined.

It’s clear that writer Shane Black and director Richard Donner knew their audience, as Lethal Weapon caters to the action crowd in a tremendously satisfying fashion. In the very first scene, the film provides a smattering of drugs, boobs and violence. It’s one hell of a way to set the tone, and the rest of the picture easily lives up to this promise. Without a doubt, the film works as well as it does thanks to Black’s screenplay. Black’s contributions are often overlooked since the production is practically faultless from top to bottom, but it cannot be overstated how fantastic this script truly is since it was his ticket into Hollywood. Lethal Weapon’s dialogue is consistently engaging and witty, and Black mixes the humour and action with tender character development and moments of pathos. It also indulges in his love of Christmas, which is evident in all of his films including Iron Man 3. While the sequels rely on set-pieces and are driven by their respective cop cases, this first instalment is driven by the personal journeys of these characters, affording depth and humanity to what could’ve been an enjoyable but forgettable distraction. It goes without saying that the narrative is standard-order, but the execution is remarkable, and that’s what truly matters.

Fortunately, for all of its character dramatics, Lethal Weapon does not skim on the pyrotechnics. Ever the blockbuster veteran, Donner orchestrates a string of magnificent action set-pieces and conflicts scattered throughout the narrative, embracing the possibilities of the picture’s R rating. Action was arguably at its pinnacle during the 1980s, and Lethal Weapon is solid reinforcement of this opinion, with its fluid camerawork and crisp editing easily superior to a lot of today’s big-budget pretenders. However, the film has its dumb moments. In the final sequence, Riggs decides not to simply arrest the bad guy, but have a punch-up with him instead with dozens of policemen standing around. It’s an entertaining fight, to be sure, but the foundation is a bit shaky, and it feels like the only time in the film that action is being forced. For the record, the extended director’s cut is this reviewer’s preferred version. Some may find it too long, but the additional scenes deserve a spot in the movie, providing extra action, a few extra laughs, and added character depth.

While Lethal Weapon is vehemently a buddy movie, it’s Gibson’s party. Back in 1987, Mel was a rising star and everybody adored him, and it’s easy to see why: he’s a fantastic actor. One of the finest performances of his career is our first encounter with Riggs. Gibson has intensity on tap, and he balances depression with superb comic timing and edgy energy. His emotional outbursts are unexpectedly powerful, as well. One key scene depicts Riggs contemplating suicide, sobbing as he sticks a gun into his mouth before realising he can’t do it. Gibson’s acting in this scene is riveting, showing how much this guy genuinely deserves an Oscar for his skills. Likewise, Glover could have turned Roger Murtaugh into a one-note bore, but the actor created a complex, devoted family man, and he matches Gibson step for step. The chemistry between Glover and Gibson is absolutely killer – it’s hard to think of any male/female relationships in movies that click as brilliantly as these two. Watching these two trade witty banter is a pleasure. Lethal Weapon additionally benefits from the inclusion of Gary Busey as Mr. Joshua, the main villain’s henchman. Busey is a fine actor who’s as entertaining on the screen as he is off-camera, and he makes for a top-notch bad guy.

The Lethal Weapon series is ultimately tarnished by the amount of sequels it warranted. Although the sequels are entertaining enough, four movies is pushing it. As the series progressed, things became more action-oriented and the tone veered more into the comedic realm. This first film, on the other hand, nails the mix of action and comedy, with Donner shifting between the two tonal extremes with utmost dexterity. For action fans, the film is a godsend. But more casual movie fans will find a lot to like as well, due to how thoroughly enjoyable the enterprise is. And I don’t know about you, but I’ll always be watching this one come Christmas Eve.

Best Scene

Riggs and Murtaugh bond over some target practise. We’ve all been there.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Franco Zeffirelli reportedly decided to offer Mel Gibson the role of Hamlet after seeing his suicide contemplation scene in this film.
  • Hollywood city officials hung Christmas decorations on Hollywood Blvd. a few months early so that the scenes shot for this film, particularly the action scenes near the end of the picture, looked like they happened at the end of the year.
  • A running gag in the Lethal Weapon film series is the “One,Two, Three” false starts where Riggs and Murtaugh can’t decide whether to go “One, Two, Three… then go!” or “One, Two, THREE!” (go ON “Three”) While the gag does not exist in this film, there is a “One, Two, Three” false start in this movie. It happens when the uniformed cops are trying to prepare to sing “Silent Night” in a chorus and one of the cops keeps starting too soon.
  • An alternate opening and ending were both filmed (and are available on the Lethal Weapon 4 DVD). The alternate opening featured Riggs drinking alone in a bar where he is accosted by a couple of thugs who want his money. Riggs claims all of his is in the bank and tells the thugs “not to fuck with him.” The thugs attack him, but Riggs easily subdues them. He is then allowed to take a free bottle of booze from the bar in exchange for never returning. Richard Donner felt the movie should open with a brighter look at Riggs and filmed the scene with Riggs awakening in his trailer to replace it. The alternate ending featured Riggs and Murtaugh saying good-bye to one another. Murtaugh tells Riggs he’s thinking of retiring, but Riggs tells him not to.
  • Despite popular misconceptions, Roger Murtaugh never actually says, “I’m getting too old for this shit” in this movie. He simply says, “I’m too old for this shit.” He does however say he’s “getting too old for this shit” in the sequels.




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