#1 in my ranking of the Lethal Weapon franchise.
Another staple of 80s action filmmaking, Lethal Weapon is solid character work mixed with a so-so mystery topped with quality action. It’s interesting how there are a small bevy of screenwriters who can manage to come through as distinctly as a director. Shane Black’s written films feel almost as much Shane Black as Shane Black directed films. Lethal Weapon has a distinct feel to it shared with movies like The Nice Guys and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It’s not that Richard Donner as director doesn’t come through, it’s just that the types of characters, dialogue, and overall subject matter are so distinctly Black’s that Black as a writer ends up a solid example against auteur theory that places authorship primarily on the director.
It’s one of the premiere buddy cop movies with the younger Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) paired up with the older (having just turned fifty) veteran Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover). They’re put together on the case of a prostitute who jumped from a high rise balcony right around the same time that an old Vietnam acquaintance of Murtaugh’s, Michael Hunsaker (Tom Atkins), reaches out to him out of the blue. It turns out that the girl who plummeted to her death was actually Hunsaker’s daughter, and Hunsaker wants revenge on the men who killed her, he says, even though her death seems pretty clearly a suicide. Toxicology disagrees, though, saying that the pills she took were laced with a poison. There may be more to this.
And then we get a heavy focus on the burgeoning relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh. I think Mel Gibson may be my favorite big Hollywood star of the 80s. On top of being charismatic as hell, he’s actually a really good actor as well. His Riggs is a broken man on the edge of suicide because of the car crash that killed his wife. His early scene where he puts a gun in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger, is exceedingly well performed by Gibson. Murtaugh, by contrast, is the patriarch of a happy, middle-class family with a wife (who can’t cook), a teenage daughter, and a couple of smaller children. He’s content at home, and into his life comes this suicidal maniac of a new partner. The heart of the movie is really the burgeoning relationship between the two as Murtaugh shows Riggs that life can be happy again, maybe. It’s far from heavy-handed, just a portrait of two cops getting to know each other, anchored mostly by Gibson’s surprisingly complex performance going from manic to wounded to charming, all without losing that semblance of madness driven by grief. It’s about an older man reaching out to a wounded younger man and offering a vision of a life after his melancholy.
The two then go on a hunch that there’s more to the death of the girl than just some bad pills. They go to the house of the prostitute questioned at the scene which explodes as they approach. There’s definitely something else going on, and…because the film spent most of the first hour dedicated to the relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh, there isn’t that much time to really give this mystery of the death of Murtaugh’s friend’s daughter all that much room to breathe. It’s very quickly figured out, including an exposition dump from Hunsaker, and then we’re into the final act where action dominates.
The lack of attention to the actual mystery ends up feeling like a bit of an anchor, little more than an excuse to get our well-drawn buddy cops into the action climax. And the action climax is solid stuff. There’s a showdown at a desert location with Riggs on a sniper rifle. There’s a torture scene with Riggs getting electrocuted. There are shootouts to rescue Murtaugh’s teenage daughter. It’s solidly made stuff.
And then the final confrontation feels wrong. The bad guy’s chief henchman Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey) orchestrated the kidnapping of the teenaged Rianne Murtaugh (Traci Wolfe), threatening Murtaugh’s family while Riggs has been dealing with how to live despite the sadness of his wife’s death. So, the final physical confrontation is obviously between Mr. Joshua and…um…Riggs? There’s something there about how both Mr. Joshua and Riggs were members of Special Forces in Vietnam, but it’s not the emotional center of the final half hour of the film that was about rescuing Murtaugh’s daughter. Sure, Murtaugh wouldn’t be able to take someone like Mr. Joshua in a fight, but the way it’s all filmed it feels like this is resolution of the film’s entire thematic center. It’s not. It feels…weird. Not to say that the actual fight doesn’t work from a purely plot perspective. It resolves the danger of Mr. Joshua while, at the same time, doing it with a certain stylistic flare as Riggs and Mr. Joshua fist fight on the Murtaugh lawn with the sprinklers providing some very nice texture to the image.
The movie really rides on its stars, though. Gibson does all of the heavy lifting as Riggs while Glover is appropriately wearied and exhausted by the whole situation. Everyone else around them is fine without really having enough screentime to be much else.
I kind of love the first half of the film, where it’s mostly a pure character drama, and I find the second half helped greatly by the work in the first half but kind of all over the place at the same time. It’s never not entertaining, but it really could have been built a bit better to take advantage of the genre conventions it was dwelling in to greater effect.