Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Traci Wolfe, Mitchell Ryan, Tom Atkins
Plot: A tired detective (Glover) is paired with a manic, out-of-control partner (Gibson), who he has to control, while trying to solve the murder of a young teenage girl.
Who doesn’t love Lethal Weapon? It is the essential cop movie. It basically reinvented the unlikely partnership between two cops genre. One is an old grump, playing things by the book and more concerned with a cosy family life than the day job, while the other is a loose cannon, one more bad day away from committing suicide and approaching every task with a guns-blazing attitude that makes 007 seem tame. Slap an 80s style to the direction and a movie title that burns itself into your memory, and you have a winning movie before you have even begun.
Of course, that doesn’t really do the success of Lethal Weapon justice. Director Richard Donner really does do everything in his power to make this movie as good as it is. While the very idea of watching Lethal Weapon is enough to connote entertainment, newcomers to the franchise will find it very easy to sink into the action. This is mainly to do with the chemistry between its two leads. Murtaugh and Riggs are the very definition of world’s apart. It is hard to pick which one of them is the true lead (Gibson probably winning out, down to his star status as an actor), the movie splitting the back stories down the middle and treating them as an ensemble cast. It is hard to pick which one is your favourite out of the two. The younger viewers will find themselves unable to resist falling in love with Gibson’s action hero persona, arguably his greatest lead role in an action franchise (sorry Mad Max). He might be a delusional nutcase, but there is an undeniable charisma about the performance, Riggs getting across a sense of being both infallible, yet a figure to pity. We rarely feel sorry for Bond or McClane – Riggs is that brave hero who saves the day and goes home to a bottle of beer in an empty caravan. He is a very romantic lead hero. I will always consider the highlight of this movie the small scene where Riggs contemplates shooting himself in the opening twenty minutes. It is beautifully acted and in a short space of time cements everything we need to know about Riggs’ personality into the viewers’ mind. However, Murtaugh, as you get older, might just win you over as the better character of the two. He might be a complaining old fool, but there is a wizened shell to the character. He is your traditional cop figure, but given the best one-liners, a hard-nosed personality and his unlikely hero persona really cranks up the final act. Glover is a perfect fit. This is twice (the other time being the sequel to Predator), he has taken an action hero role, approached it in a completely non-stereotypical way and created something quite special. When Murtaugh breaks into full alpha mode, it is all the more impressive, because, unlike Riggs, he is out of his league and it is the sheer determination of saving his family that keeps him going. There is something just as impressive as Riggs’ hero about that. However, while these two are total opposites, Gibson and Glover’s chemistry is irrefutable. Of course, a lot of this is down to one of my favourite writers, Shane Black, fuelling their dialogue, but there a surprisingly good pairing. When the initial sizing up between the two characters has died down, they find common ground (they both mean well), and build a relationship from that. Most cop pairings are all about the constant bickering, but Lethal Weapon is about the bond between the bickering. They face an impossible enemy and their teamwork, above anything else, is what pulls them through it.
This chemistry, well performed by the two leads, is what makes Lethal Weapon a cult movie, although like any older classic watched in a modern day setting, its perfection is often more imagined than earned. This is a very good movie, great even, but there are a few duff notes that stop me from giving it a standing ovation. My main gripe with Lethal Weapon is that, upon reflection, the dynamic between the two leads is one of the only things this movie has got going for it. If Riggs and Murtaugh didn’t work, the movie would come crumbling down on its feet. The rest of the good things about this movie are aesthetics and set-pieces. Yes, the action is very good, featuring the correct amount of black ops military villains and explosions to make it a good, old-fashioned 80s actioner. The context is where it falls down. Mitchell Ryan’s bad guy is an after-thought, a menacing figure who never really sticks in the memory. The plot is a little flimsy. It starts strong with a traditional murder mystery connecting the lead characters, but as soon as it hits a point where we get to abandon detective work for some gunfights, the movie abandons its police drama roots in a heartbeat. The villains do their job, barking threats and brandishing guns, but it is easy to forget why they are doing what they are doing. Gary Busey is a memorable figure, but in taking the cheap motivation – he is a mercenary with a sadistic love of violence – his presence never lingers. I also have a dislike for the final fight, where the entire police force stand back and let Gibson and Busey carry out a fight to the death. It is a lazy excuse to write in a punch-up and ends a great movie on a bum note.
Final Verdict: Gibson and Glover shine as one of the greatest cop pairings in cinematic history, almost hiding a weak narrative with their sheer charisma.