You might not remember it, but this film was Mel Gibson’s “comeback” after his first career meltdown during the mid-eighties. At least that one didn’t wind up offending any ethnic groups. Through the production of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Gibson had acquired a reputation for surliness, hard drinking and brawling, until he finally walked away from the movies for two years. This 1987 prototype of the buddy cop movie marked not only his return to the film business but the birth of a new Mel Gibson, the funny action star with the Three Stooges fetish.
Lethal Weapon also launched a franchise that was a textbook example of the law of diminishing returns, but this first film was a lean, surprisingly fresh actioner that, while bloody and over the top, had enough of human dimension to separate it from the rest of the cop movie crowd.
Martin Riggs (Gibson) is an LAPD detective who has been on a downward spiral since his wife died in a car wreck. Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is 50-year-old family man on the verge of retirement (Or so he says. Three sequels and 11 years later, he still hasn’t gotten around to retiring). Much to his dismay, Murtaugh is teamed with this burn-out case to investigate the apparent suicide of a 20-year-old party girl with ties to one of Roger’s Vietnam War buddies. This, not surprisingly, leads to a conspiracy of Vietnam-era Special Forces soldiers using their old contacts in Southeast Asia to smuggle heroin into the United States.
The plot itself is over the top and heavy on the clichés, but the bad buys sneer and strut to the required effect. Gary Busey is juicily effective as Stock Henchmen #409, also known as Mr. Joshua. You could tell he was the baddest bad guy because he had blond hair and was known only as “Mister” somebody.
What made this movie click when similar takes on the theme faded into obscurity was the focus on the contrast between the two leads and the redemptive power that Murtaugh’s family has over Riggs’ life. The Murtaugh home life has a level of texture and reality that elevates Lethal Weapon above the usual action fare, much like the connection between Bruce Willis and Bonnie Bedelia in the first Die Hard film.
On the minus side, Riggs’ suicidal tendencies are entirely sold via the strength of Gibson’s performance in a handful of scenes. On the script level, it’s pretty thin. Ironically this is one point where the existence of sequels comes in handy. Lethal Weapon 2 provides a degree of texture that the first movie needed.
Of course, the sequels do exist and got progressively worse as they went. The first sequel, with its sneering South African baddies, was not all that bad. It had Patsy Kensit at the peak of her career doing what she does best: looking cute and taking her clothes off. The film still had a decent balance between action and humor and Joe Pesci had yet to become annoying and repetitive.
Starting with the third movie, however, producer Joel Silver and director Richard Donner seemed to decide that having a coherent script was optional. Both of these films seemed to have been shot from notes scribbled on cocktail napkins. Scenes meander hopelessly and the films seem to have little forward momentum. So little forethought appears to have gone into the third movie that Rene Russo’s best one-liner refers back to a scene that was never shot.
By the fourth movie, the Lethal Weapon series had devolved into an R-rated family sitcom. Think The Cosby Show with F-words and impalings. They had accumulated so many characters that the boring relationship stories completely swamped the central action story, which had something to do with the Chinese and counterfeiting and was resolved mostly through one numbingly long scene of exposition.
But, taken on its own, Lethal Weapon deserves it place as the Citizen Kane of eighties R-rated cop buddy movies. Okay, maybe not, but it was a damn good film.