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Dissecting the Classics – Lethal Weapon

August 31, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Lethal Weapon

One of my more anticipated films of the year is The Predator, directed by Shane Black. While it doesn’t release until September, that month is going to be dedicated to four films by Joel and Ethan Coen, a theme month I’ve been planning for a while. But I thought it would be fitting to end the summer by looking at a movie written by Shane Black, and directed by Richard Donner to bring this summer of reviews full circle.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Lethal Weapon

Wide Release Date: March 6, 1987
Directed By: Richard Donner
Written By: Shane Black
Produced By: Richard Donner and Joel Silver
Cinematography By: Stephen Goldblatt
Edited By: Stuart Baird
Music By: Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton
Production Company: Silver Pictures
Distributed By: Warner Brothers
Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs
Danny Glover as Roger Murtaugh
Gary Busey as Mr. Joshua
Mitchell Ryan as Peter McAllister
Darlene Love as Trish Murtaugh

What Do We All Know?

There had been buddy cop movies before, and there have been many since, but I don’t know if any are more iconic than Lethal Weapon. It was the first buddy cop movie for Shane Black, the man who would later write and direct the excellent Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and The Nice Guys. It starred Mel Gibson, fresh off of the Mad Max series and ready to bring his unique charisma to a broader American audience, and Danny Glover, a respected character actor who had yet to really break out as a leading man. And tying it all together was superstar director Richard Donner, who had brought such diverse films as The Omen, Superman: The Movie and The Goonies to audiences for the last decade plus. With a pedigree like Donner’s and the fresh-faced talents of Black, Gibson and Glover, it’s no shock that Lethal Weapon was a great movie that spawned a good franchise.

Readers with a good memory might recall that Michael Ornelas introduced me to this movie over two years ago, but it’s been a while since I’d seen it and I definitely wanted to watch it again. I was largely ecstatic on the initial viewing and my opinion hasn’t changed much in the interim. So let’s look at what makes Lethal Weapon stand tall among its sea of imitators.

What Went Right?

There is no great mystery to why Lethal Weapon works. Shane Black’s screenplay is a fantastic character piece that effortlessly balances drama, humor and action. Riggs and Murtaugh are great characters made better by the compelling performances of Gibson and Glover, whose chemistry jumps off the screen. And while it occasionally veers into unbelievable territory for the sake of being a popcorn and explosions crowd pleaser, it gets away with it because Richard Donner is one of the best in his generation at making the implausible plausible. (Remember, this is the guy who made us believe Superman could fly.) They’d almost have to try and make a bad movie with that kind of talent behind it, and they’d probably still fail.

The most obvious strength this movie has is its two lead characters. Martin Riggs is a deeply flawed, borderline suicidal renegade cop dealing with a personal tragedy and trying to find purpose. It’s a perfect vehicle for Mel Gibson, whose magnetism is at its best when he can play big emotions and create a sense of unease. Roger Murtaugh is celebrating his fiftieth birthday, and the only thing more important than doing his job well and by the book is taking care of his family. Donald Glover brings instant credibility to that type of good guy cop character, and his panicked and often hilarious reactions to Gibson’s antics make for many of the film’s best moments. Together, they bring out the worst and best in each other, covering the others flaws and making an effective team. This is the buddy cop formula done to a perfection.

Shane Black’s script deserves credit for more than just the two lead characters, though. Not so much for the story, but for how he balances the tone of the movie. Riggs’ is a character that goes to dark places, which are occasionally played for laughs but more often raise the tension in any given situation. It’s not often you see a scene where a police officer tries to stop a suicidal jumper and the cop may be the crazier one. Murtaugh’s family scenes feel straight out of sitcom, but are never at odds with the gritty police work, dark comedy or the blowout action scenes. Black also crafts some formidable bad guys; early on it feels like McAlister is going to be the big bad of the film, but it’s all just a swerve as Mr. Joshua takes center stage. Fans of Black’s ouvre will notice a lot of the trends that define his later work started here, from the general premise to the specifics like the film taking place on Christmas. It’s really cool to see the creative DNA of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and The Nice Guys in its infancy.

While this movie is definitely a buddy cop movie above all else, I would be remiss not to talk about how fun this is an action movie. There’s shootouts, car chases, explosions and fist fights to spare as the movie races toward its climax, and our heroes experience real peril when they are captured and tortured by the antagonists. Those fist fights aren’t just punching either; Donner brought in three different martial arts experts to make these battles more unique and hard hitting. Cedric Adams brought Capoeira, Dennis Newsome brought jailhouse rock, and Rorian Gracie brought Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu. While seeing Riggs knock out Joshua with a triangle choke was certainly new and exciting in 1987, it’s an aspect that still holds up well in a world more familiar with mixed martial arts.

What Went Wrong?

Let’s get this out of the way first; Mel Gibson is a lightning rod for controversy and deservedly so. While I do my best to separate the performer from the performance (or the director from the directing), I understand that’s not always the easiest thing for all viewers. So yeah, if you don’t want to watch the movie because Gibson is a deeply disturbed, anti-Semitic asshole, I can respect that. But without the benefit of hindsight, that may be the only thing that’s really a problem with this movie. There is a lack of compelling side characters, but the film is really only concerned with Riggs, Murtaugh, Joshua and Murtaugh’s family. It’s not necessarily a transcendently great film or an all-time classic, but it doesn’t need to be.

And In Summary…

As far as I’m concerned, Lethal Weapon deserves its praise. Riggs and Murtaugh are great characters that you want to spend more time with (probably why we got three sequels), and the movie they are in is a great mix of hard-hitting action, dramatic tension and sharp comedy. It’s not quite Richard Donner’s best and I think Shane Black refined the formula in his later work. But Lethal Weapon is still one of the best buddy cop movies of all time, and also belongs on the shelf with Die Hard, RobCop, The Terminator and other 1980’s action movies.

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