I'm Never Too Old for This Shit!
By Kevin J. Olson
Lethal Weapon is one of those movies that explains my love of the medium. Sure, it’s not as sexy as saying that Fellini’s 8½ or Vertigo or something by Rohmer or Godard were the catalyst for my cinephilia, but — as odd as it may sound — Richard Donner’s buddy cop movie starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover helped shaped me as a lover of film. The progression goes something like this: As a kid, I loved Lethal Weapon. I wore out my Columbia House copy of the tape after only a few years. The more I watched it, the more I was curious about things that hadn’t always occurred to me. Things such as: “I wonder how they pulled that shot off” or “I like how they go from this scene to this scene.” Essentially what was happening was I was becoming more aware of the process of how a film was constructed. Naturally as a fan of Lethal Weapon (and its fantastic sequel), I devoured every action film I could. Sure, there were some horrible titles that I saw, but I remember one day biking home from my local Mom and Pop with a Cantonese movie that looked awesome. John Woo’s The Killer would have never been on my radar had I not loved Lethal Weapon so much that I went out and explored every kind of action movie. I become obsessed with Woo’s films, and as nerds are wont to do, I began researching (before Google! Yes, I had to use a library.) in magazines and movie encyclopedias what films possibly could have influenced John Woo to make this cinematic obsession of mine. This led to me finding out about Jean-Pierre Melville and how his Le Samourai was a huge influence on Woo’s version of the same film. So, in a roundabout way, Lethal Weapon led me to Le Samourai which led me to seeking out more world cinema.
The reason for this story is that my appreciation for Lethal Weapon goes far beyond mere nostalgia (although they don’t make ‘em like this anymore) or a kind of detached, ironic appreciation for a ‘80s action/comedy. I legitimately do love Richard Donner’s film for being the catalyst for my seeking out world cinema (a spark can come from the most unlikely of places), but I also love the film as its own entity separate from just being the movie I credit to interest in “higher” art. And on this, the film’s 25th anniversary, I found myself channeling the pre-teen that watched the film endlessly on VHS as I found myself, upon my most recent viewing of the film, to be just as wound up and invested in the film’s story and utterly elated by the finished product as I was all those years ago.
So, what was it that made this film about an oddball, yet endearing, duo of Los Angeles cops Martin Riggs (Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Glover) so appealing and engaging to audiences? Part of it may be the combination of two rising stars (Gibson was coming off the success of the Mad Max movies, although he wasn’t quite the international megastar yet; Glover had appeared in an important bit part in Witness and a major star turn in The Color Purple) and a more than competent action director, but I think a lot of the credit has to go to Shane Black’s script. Before he became a parody of himself with bloated screenplays for The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, Black wrote a screenplay that featured great dialogue for two actors who spouted it perfectly. The film’s narrative — a basic murder mystery that naturally finds its way into the drug world — actually develops nicely and wraps up without us thinking about how implausible it all was. The film’s script had attention to detail that so many action films lack today. It also allowed for Glover and Gibson to buy into these characters creating one of the most charismatic duos in the history of buddy-action movies (this formula had really only been done once prior to this with the lesser Walter Hill movie 48 Hrs.).
Richard Donner was really the only established commodity working on the film when it went into production (although one could make a case for Gibson due to his international success), and he makes sure the film is paced perfectly so that we never get worn out by the relentless action. The pacing of the film has an impeccable rhythm: we are introduced the mystery over the opening credits (using Christmas music as a gimmick to juxtapose the film’s violent story a year before Die Hard would), then to the two cops and their very different lives, then they’re thrust together and have their initial conflict, then they reluctantly begin to strike up a friendship as the two try to solve the Amanda Hunsaker mystery, and then realize how serious the investigation is while on their way to interview a witness. All of this takes place before any of the real action that affects the film’s main plot. Sure, there are a few establishing action scenes (my favorite being Riggs doing a Three Stooges shtick while busting some low-rent drug dealers), but the establishing 25 minutes or so of Lethal Weapon is more interested in giving the audience enough time to get to know and like these characters and like them as they joke around at the shooting range. (I love Riggs’ smiley face target guy) and Riggs seamlessly ingratiates himself into the Murtaugh family (coming into his bedroom in the morning with coffee and saying, “Come on, we got get up and catch bad guys.”) Roger Ebert correctly called Lethal Weapon a “bruised forearm movie” (meaning that the action is so intense that your date clutches your arm for the entire picture without letting go, leaving it bruised), but there’s so much more to it than that. Gibson and Glover, and their onscreen chemistry, are the reason why.
It’s crazy to think that Donner shot the film’s original ending with the intent that the film would be a “oner,” a movie that had no intentions of having a sequel. This original ending can be seen on the DVD special features and shows the partners at ease with their friendship and saying goodbye to one another. However, Donner felt the chemistry between Glover and Gibson — which they didn’t predict when the film went into production — was so good that he couldn’t just let these two characters part ways as the original ending intended. So, a new ending (the one in the film where Riggs gives Murtaugh a bullet signifying he won’t kill himself and Murtaugh letting Riggs into his home for Christmas) was shot that gave the duo a happier ending that allowed room to maneuver should they want to make a sequel. It’s a tribute to just how good Glover and Gibson were in these roles and their chemistry together that they convinced the director to change the ending of the film.
One of my favorite scenes that really showcases Gibson’s acting ability is when we’re first introduced to the suicidal tendencies of Riggs. Looking at a picture of his deceased wife, Riggs puts a gun in his mouth unable to go on. It’s overdramatic, sure, but Gibson acts the hell out of this scene and gives the character more depth than what we’re used to in action films. These aren’t Dirty Harry-type cops who just shoot the bad guys and simply allow that trait to define them. Riggs is mentally unstable, and we know why, and it plays a lot better than the film’s original opening which shows Riggs as a maniacal bad ass as he roughs up a handful of toughs in a bar. Having a director such as Donner helped the filmmakers to see that they had a better scene in the can for introducing Riggs and how they wanted him to relate to the audience; they definitely made the correct choice.
Murtaugh, conversely, is a family man who just turned 50, is unsure of his place as a cop in a modern police department and a father in a modern family, and we know why (the great opening scene of him in the tub on his birthday being serenaded by his family is another favorite) because the film gives these characters depth and dimensions that allow the viewer to get invested while juxtaposing these two very different eras of the cop prototype. Murtaugh feels more like John Wayne and Riggs seems inspired by the Schwarzenegger/Stallone inspired superman style of action heroes. By grounding Murtaugh in the past and in more of a reality than we’re accustomed to with action films from the ‘80s, it makes Riggs’ character stand out more (which is good because Gibson is more than up to the task as a performer) and the violence he inflicts (and has inflicted upon him…Murtaugh, too) means more when it happens.
So instead of the murder that Riggs and Murtaugh investigate just being an excuse for them to kill people and blow things up real-good, it actually begins the process of renewal and reawakening for the two characters; it gives them purpose. Riggs is able to channel his elite killing skills for something good (making him less suicidal in the process), and Murtaugh — once the investigation turns to personal threats — is able to reestablish his worth as a cop and father when those things seemed to be slipping away from him and becoming altogether obsolete (this family dynamic of the Murtaugh’s is actually one of the aspects that attracted Glover to the film’s script). All of these touches of character development were more abnormal in 1987 than in today’s modern action film (and keep in mind they did all of this and still kept the movie less than two hours, go figure).
Donner also makes the film re-watchable all these years later because the logistics of the action scenes make sense. Something modern action films are completely devoid of, letting your audience get their bearings and understand the confines of the space the film’s characters inhabit (especially during fight scenes) is what separates the really good action films from the bad ones. Look at the final fight scene between Riggs and the mercenary Joshua (a fantastic performance from Gary Busey in a role he credits to saving his career at the time) which is an interesting mix of Brazilian ju-jitsu and a fighting style known as Jailhouse Rock which is a mixture of different styles. These fighting styles hadn’t been seen onscreen before in a mainstream action movie (Steven Seagal’s Above the Law wouldn’t come out for another year) and showcase just how lethal Riggs is; they also put the viewer right into the chaos of the final fight which is a brutal, intense hand-to-hand battle. The difference between this final fight scene and say something from the Bourne movies is that Donner wisely cuts back about every 20 seconds to an establishing shot to remind the audience where they are so they can logically follow the action in the scene despite its chaotic aesthetic. It’s one of my favorite fight scenes in any action movie.
The time the film spends with these characters in their everyday lives, and the way the viewer always is aware of where the characters are and what is going on is one of the reasons the film still holds up 25 years later. But what really makes it special and memorable this many years after its initial release is the on-screen chemistry between Gibson and Glover. Maybe an argument could be made for the duo of Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy (although Murphy, it seems to me, did all the heavy lifting there) as the better example of the mismatched buddy cop formula, but I prefer Riggs and Murtaugh for their poignancy as real-to-life characters, their wit and charm, and the ease in which these two actors slipped into these career-defining roles. Money made at the box office is never the determining factor for how good a movie is; however, it is a good indicator (sometimes) of what an audience connects to. Made for just $15 million, Lethal Weapon went on to gross more than $100 million and spawned the rare (this point is arguable, I admit) sequel that is better than the original (the film series, four films in all, has grossed more than $900 million). I think audiences responded to more than just the fact that the film is a perfectly executed action movie; I think audiences responded to these lived-in characters that are thrust into these action scenes. Lethal Weapon is certainly the most influential cop movie to come out of the ‘80s spawning all kinds of comedy/action hybrids that never could touch the concoction that Warner Bros. put together of Richard Donner’s direction, Shane Black’s script, and Glover and Gibson’s performances as they all coalesced perfectly to make one of the most influential and memorable action/comedy films of all time.