*. You could argue that Lethal Weapon was the epitome of an ’80s action flick. A few other titles suggest themselves — probably Die Hard would be the leading contender — but you’d have to put Lethal Weapon near the top of the list.
*. So when I ask how well this movie has held up in the thirty years since its release I could also be asking about the health of an entire genre. Do they still make movies like this any more? Do we wish they did?
*. It was not a ground-breaking film. It made the name of screenwriter Shane Black a familiar one, though I draw back from saying it launched his career. Looking over his credits, it was pretty much all downhill from here, though he kept making a lot of money. It’s just that for a while his script here locked in the standard for what an action-movie script was supposed to be.
*. If you’ve ever seen one of Black’s scripts you’ll notice how they’re written in an engaging way that makes them fun to read. This was something fairly new in the industry. It may have helped cover up the fact that the material was, even in 1987, conventional. In the case of Lethal Weapon it works on screen, but not because of anything Black put on the page.
*. What’s on the page is pure, and I mean the purest, formula. It’s the usual buddy cop film, with a mismatched odd couple partnered together. There are a lot of lame and obvious attempts at humour. Along with the tag lines (Murtaugh: “I’m getting too old for this shit”) we have a running gag about how bad Murtaugh’s wife’s cooking is, and how he doesn’t want his daughter getting involved with Riggs. The plot turns on a bunch of points that don’t really gel. A joke is even made about how “thin” the evidence is for Riggs’s hunches. In fact, they are sheer whimsy. There are no clues to be followed but only a series of explosions.
*. The action scenes are inflated and theatrical. Hunsaker is killed by an assassin who pops up at a spectacular cliff-top funeral in a helicopter. The kill shot borrows the milk-carton gag from The Manchurian Candidate, but one wonders what would have happened if Hunsaker had not just happened to be standing somewhere away from a window. Was there no easier way they could have effected the hit? And how hard would it have been for Murtaugh and Riggs to trace the helicopter?
*. Another “big scene” is the shootout in the desert, which again goes in for massive overkill, with the bad guys arriving in a couple of vehicles and a helicopter. How inconspicuous. Then Riggs can’t get a shot off because Murtaugh just happens to be standing in the way!
*. Of course the general has to die in a spectacular fashion, so when his car is hit by the streetcar it does a remarkable flip, bursts into flame, and then just happens to be loaded with grenades so it blows up as well. For the final fight scene, whose ridiculousness is already off the charts (Riggs insists on fighting Joshua mano a mano while the cops stand around watching), we have to prepare the ground by having the police car slowly roll into a fire hydrant, alarmingly knocking it over and so providing the waterworks for their scene of mortal combat. A police helicopter overhead supplies an obliging spotlight. All this is done not just to heighten the drama but also, I think, to cover up for the fact that it’s not much of a fight.
*. These are all big things but most of the little touches are clichés as well. When the girl jumps off the building of course she lands on the roof of a car. That always happens in the movies. Whether it has ever happened in real life is another question. Just as when the cop, who was presumably posted outside the Murtaugh house as a sacrificial victim, is shot and falls forward onto the car horn. Something that again always happens in the movies.
*. Roger Ebert: “the plot makes an amazing amount of sense, considering that the action hardly ever stops for it.”
*. Oh, Roger. Not one of your finer moments. I wonder how we’re supposed to take that qualifier “considering.” Considering that the plot doesn’t make any sense at all? If the drug-runners are unsure of what Hunsaker told the police — and how could they be? — why don’t they just change their plans? There’s no way that they could otherwise be sure that they were safe. And couldn’t these elite professional killers have found a less dramatic way of getting rid of Dixie than, you know, blowing her house up? And why did they have to kill Dixie anyway?
*. Black says the original script was inspired by Dirty Harry, and I take it the jumper scene is a nod to the earlier film. It’s just another moment, however, that really doesn’t make much sense. The jumper didn’t see the air bag being inflated beneath him? And why is Murtaugh so upset at Riggs afterwards? What did he do wrong? He clearly wasn’t acting suicidal, and yet their confrontation post-jump immediately escalates into a scene where he nearly kills himself.
*. Even the score sounds a lot like the work Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton had just done for Edge of Darkness, and I thought that was overrated.
*. Because it was the ’80s Mel Gibson could sport a mane of big hair that makes him look a bit like a troll doll. He could also get away with what, to later audiences, would be shocking homophobic slurs. When Murtaugh asks him to suppose that Amanda had been in bed not with a man but with the prostitute Dixie, Riggs says “OK, suppose it was Dixie, disgusting but OK.” Then, when they go to Dixie’s house and it explodes and Murtaugh jumps on Riggs to shield him he yells out “What are you, a fag?”
*. Just to quickly follow up on this, in the scene in Lethal Weapon 2 where Riggs and Murtaugh find themselves on top of each other after another home explosion Riggs only tells Murtaugh that he doesn’t want anyone to see them like this. He doesn’t call him a fag. That’s progress.
*. The criminal gang isn’t very special or interesting — I would describe Mitchell Ryan as being downright dull — and their caper is just the usual drug-running. There aren’t even any good villainous lines. Gary Busey provides a bit of a spark, but his character is just an attack dog and his assault on Murtaugh’s family at the end makes no sense at all. Wouldn’t he try and get away? He’d already given Riggs the slip, so he was clear. But instead he has to try and play the Grinch and ruin the Murtaughs’ Christmas.
*. With all of this going against it (if you can count formula in a genre flick as a failing, and I’m not sure you can), it’s still easy to see why Lethal Weapon was such a hit. Richard Donner does keep things moving and Gibson and Glover play off against each other perfectly. They have to carry the film by themselves, and they do.
*. In the original script Riggs was a darker figure but re-writes added a lot of comic touches. As the franchise was milked through several sequels that bipolarity between violence and slapstick would become both more tired and more pronounced, until eventually the movies were just action-comedies spoofing themselves.
*. I don’t miss the ’80s and I don’t miss movies like this. And yet I’m not sure action films in general have gotten any better in the last thirty years. In a 2016 interview Mel Gibson took a swipe at superhero movies with their bloated budgets and spandex-clad heroes. So much, I think he was saying, for his inheritors.