#2 in my ranking of the Lethal Weapon franchise.
This series was never great, but it’s nice to see it return to some level of entertaining after the pits of the third entry. Giving the writing reins to Channing Gibson, who had a solid professional relationship with producer Joel Silver (meaning he did what Silver wanted), Richard Donner helmed a moderately entertaining action flick that seems to be more in line with the apparent desire to make this franchise some kind of James Bond-esque series of action spectacle, but in Los Angeles.
The film begins with another action sequence that doesn’t tie into the rest of the movie at all, with Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) encountering a man in an armored suit with a flamethrower in the middle of a street, ending with Murtaugh stripping down to his underwear to act as a distraction while Riggs shoots the guy, sending him flying and exploding. It’s an amusing bit where Riggs and Murtaugh reveal that they know secrets about each other, that Lorna (Rene Russo), Riggs’ girlfriend, is pregnant, and that Rianne (Traci Wolfe), Murtaugh’s daughter, is also pregnant.
We skip ahead nine months (probably should have been eight at the most, but whatever), and we get to the actual story: Chinese nationals in Los Angeles are sneaking Chinese immigrants into America to act as slaves to those who brought them in. Riggs and Murtaugh get involved when they’re out on Murtaugh’s boat, get into a firefight with the boat carrying the immigrants, and find a dead body washed up on shore, killed at close range, that puts the issue in their jurisdiction. I will say that I think this mystery and investigation is probably the best of the whole series. Just in terms of the bad guy’s plan, the flow of the action from one set piece to the next, and the way Riggs and Murtaugh go through figuring out what’s going on, it’s the most cohesive and easy to follow of the four movies. It may not be great (both Riggs and Murtaugh break just all the rules for police in their investigation, which is no change), but it’s solidly built.
Of course, the appeal of these movies is supposed to be the relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh, and this is probably the first movie since the original entry where they’re together for most of the film. So, we get plenty of time of their bickering like an old couple, like when Riggs keeps putting up an old news article about the events of the first sequence to embarrass Murtaugh. It’s nice stuff. The problems on the character front are Chris Rock and Joe Pesci. Rock’s character of Lee Butters was added very late in the scriptwriting phase, and they changed his character halfway through adding him. He was supposed to be a gay detective and then changed to Rianne’s secret husband (which doesn’t make too much sense, but whatever). So, that’s weird, but the bigger problem is that he was pasted into scenes without being able to contribute much, so there are times when he’s just let loose to be Chris Rock, essentially delivering a couple of Chris Rock standup routines at random moments throughout the film. The other is Joe Pesci’s Leo Getz. I know Getz is supposed to be annoying, but when that’s all he is without really contributing anything else to the film that’s hard to take. The writers have tried to give him little things to do, but they always feel insubstantial. At least in this fourth entry his contributions are more than placeholder with him distracting a dentist by getting an unnecessary root canal while Riggs, Murtaugh, and Butters interrogate someone in the other room, but that’s about it. It’s worse when, late in the film, this joke of a character is suddenly given a moment of deep catharsis that he was never working towards. I really don’t like Pesci in this film.
Anyway, the actual plot of the film is about Benny Chan (Kim Chan) bringing in a particular Chinese immigrant as leverage to force another of his slaves to craft counterfeit Chinese currency plates, orchestrated by his enforcer Wah Sing Ku (Jet Li). Li is a great addition to the film, and it was done purely to take advantage of the burgeoning fad of kung fu in movies in the late 90s. It’s no more crass than James Bond following action trends, and I’m okay with it. But Li has a great presence, especially in his first role as a villain, and his speed in action set pieces so completely outmatches both Gibson and Glover that he feels like a real physical threat. That the finale between the three ends up so bloody is a great way to use him in a high stakes showdown.
In terms of action, this is really good stuff, especially the freeway chase in the middle of the film that ends with Riggs driving through and out of a building several stories up. The action has never really been a problem in these films, but I think this might be my favorite from purely an action standpoint.
I have to talk about cohesiveness, though. I find the most satisfying stories are those where everything feeds into a central idea, where every character motivation, plot turn, and thematic idea feed into the central idea at play at the center of the film. Usually no more than just a couple of words long (like, “communication” or something), it’s what ties everything together into a whole. Aristotle called it Unity of Action. The only one of these films that comes close to a Unity of Action is the first film, and the rest have felt like committee writing assignments where the writer is throwing in different ideas from different agendas into one thing and hoping it’s entertaining enough to not matter. Lethal Weapon 4 is absolutely no different in that the ideas of Riggs’ and Murtaugh’s children and grandchildren, the gay panic stuff with Butters near the beginning, the plot of the Chinese counterfeiters, Riggs’ and Murtaugh’s parallel sense of getting old, questions of getting married before having children, and saying goodbye to lost loves are all present and do nothing to feed each other or any central idea. They clash with each other, and I find it distracting as it feels like we go from one story to another. A lot of people don’t care about this sort of cohesiveness, but I really do think it leads to better stories in general.
Anyway, the movie’s a bit of a mess with its competing ideas and pointless side characters, all while providing high quality action, a decent mystery and investigation, and giving us plenty of time with our main characters together. It’s almost enough for me to outright recommend, but just not quite. It’s pretty okay, is what I’m saying.