Lethal Weapon 4 (United States, 1998)
Since 1992, when Lethal Weapon 3 became an undisputed box office hit, there has been talk about a follow-up. With the possible exception of the still-unconfirmed Die Hard 4, Lethal Weapon 4 has been the subject of more (often inaccurate) rumors than any other action movie. Creatively, there was no reason to re-assemble the cast, but Hollywood productions are driven by money, not artistic impulses. As a result, it was just a matter of time before Lethal Weapon 4 made the transition from rumors to reality. Once the hurdle of signing Mel Gibson was cleared via a huge pay check, the film was rushed into production.
Given the expectations that constrain it, Lethal Weapon 4 is probably the best motion picture that could possibly result from another teaming of Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover). The series has lost a lot of steam since the first two entries, and, although the fourth movie ratchets up the energy level from the moribund state of the disappointing Lethal Weapon 3, there's no sense of spontaneity. Too often, this film seems like a series of elaborate, skillfully-choreographed action sequences tied together by a flimsy plot. It's a calculated formula for success, and makes for entertaining viewing, but those expecting something with the spark of the first two pictures may be disappointed.
By returning director Richard Donner to the helm for the fourth time, the series assures a continuity in both plot and style. The same mixture of high-voltage action sequences and low-key comedy that succeeded in the original Lethal Weapon is in evidence here. And, in the tradition of the other films, one new character is added. In Lethal Weapon 2, it was Joe Pesci's Leo Getz. In Lethal Weapon 3, it was Renee Russo's Lorna Cole. And here, in Lethal Weapon 4, it's Chris Rock's Lee Butters. Everyone else is back, creating a busy roster of supporting characters who sometimes appear to be struggling for screen time.
The plot, which is pretty thin, centers on Riggs and Murtaugh's first case after they have been promoted to captains (due to their propensity for destroying things, the police department couldn't purchase insurance until it got them off the street and behind a desk). After foiling a plot to bring illegal Chinese immigrants into the United States, the two cops become the targets of a top gangster (Hong Kong superstar Jet Li), who is more lethal than Riggs and Murtaugh put together. The battle becomes personal when the bad guys try to kill everyone, including Riggs' pregnant girlfriend, Lorna, by trapping them in a burning house.
The film opens with a huge pyrotechnic display that includes a man wielding a flame-thrower and a tanker truck that explodes several stories in the air, and concludes with a lengthy sequence of hand-to-hand combat. In between, there are a variety of conflagrations and fights, but the centerpiece is a chase that involves several cars, a truck bearing an "oversize load" sign, an upside down table, and Riggs jumping from vehicle to vehicle (a little sloppy editing makes it apparent that Mel Gibson is not doing his own stunts). When Jet Li is involved in the action, there are a couple of nifty martial arts moves, but nothing awe-inspiring.
Speaking of Li, he makes coolly menacing villain -- quiet, charismatic, and deadly. Arguably, he's the best that the series has had to offer. The other newcomer, Chris Rock, isn't as successful. Although Rock has some hilarious lines, his character turns out to be more of a nuisance than anything else, and he isn't integral to the proceedings in any meaningful way. Joe Pesci and Renee Russo are present and accounted for, but neither appears in more than a handful of scenes (Pesci does his "all right, all right" schtick a couple of times, and Russo acts pregnant). The real stars, Gibson and Glover, effortlessly slide back into roles that have been good to them over the years. It has been more than a decade since they were first paired, and the chemistry hasn't waned.
For those craving familiarity this season, Lethal Weapon 4 is a sure bet. There aren't any real surprises, but, despite the film's loud pyrotechnics, watching Gibson and Glover together again is a comfortable experience -- like getting together with old friends after a long absence. Lethal Weapon 4 is one of the summer of 1998's two lonely sequels (the other being Halloween - H20), and delivers just about what's expected from it -- characters who we know and like, the camaraderie we demand, and Richard Donner's obsessive, must-top-anything-I've-ever-done attitude towards action sequences. When it comes to potential blockbusters, there are no guarantees, but, for a variety of reasons (most of which have to do with Gibson), it seems likely that this will be the final Lethal Weapon. If that's the case, there are worse ways to go out.
Lethal Weapon 4 (United States, 1998)
Cast: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Renee Russo, Chris Rock, Jet Li
Screenplay: Channing Gibson, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Shane Black
Cinematography: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Music: Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton, David Sanborn
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers