Lethal Weapon (United States, 1987)

July 03, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Lethal Weapon Poster

It would be easy to lump Lethal Weapon into the vast scrapyard of mismatched buddy cop movies, but such a facile classification would do Richard Donner's 1987 thriller a disservice. This is one of the best of the subgenre, an action-packed movie that delivers adrenaline jolts with both barrels while not skimping on character development and wry humor. Starting with the first sequel (which was solidly entertaining in its own right), the series began to skew more toward comedy, but the mix here is just right - enough jokes to keep the tone light but not so many that it veers into parody. From a distance, Lethal Weapon might appear generic, but a closer look reveals something special.

The unlike, oil-and-water cops are Sergeant Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover). Riggs is a "loose cannon," but his suicidal tendencies have a reason: he has not found much to live for since the tragic death of his wife, an accident for which he blames himself. Murtaugh, on the other hand, is a staid family man whose looming concern with retirement approaching is that he experience a relatively quiet final few weeks on the job. His usual refrain is that he's "getting too old for this." When the captain pairs the volatile Riggs with the restrained Murtaugh, it's a given that they will clash, rub off a little on one another, and eventually bond. We wouldn't have it, or want it, any other way.

The film contains all of the expected staples of a cop movie. It opens with Murtaugh being assigned to investigate the apparent suicide of the daughter of an ex-Vietnam War compatriot, Michael Hunsaker (Tom Atkins). He and his new partner, Riggs, scratch the surface and find that Hunsaker's daughter's death is the tip of the iceberg of a huge drug smuggling operation run by mercenary General Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) and his right-hand man, the frightening Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey). As Riggs and Murtaugh get closer to uncovering the nature and extent of the organization, McAllister brings his forces to bear to eliminate the threat they represent.

While the plot might not invite comparison to great works of literature, it at least makes sense and is not hard to follow, and there are many individual scenes and moments that cause Lethal Weapon to explode off the screen. The tone is frenetic, yet there are plenty of opportunities for character development. We see the sadness in Riggs' eyes, the way he envies Murtaugh's home life, and his playful flirtation with Rianne (Traci Wolfe), Murtaugh's teenage daughter (whose kidnapping provides the fuel for the final act). Although Mitchell Ryan's McAllister is straight out of Stereotype Bad Guys 101, Gary Busey's Mr. Joshua is a creep and a fiend - a worthy adversary for Riggs. Both men are damaged in one way or another, so it's only fitting that they face off at the end. This is one movie in which the henchman overshadows the lead villain in almost every category that matters.

There are some great action scenes, all expertly brought to the screen by veteran director Richard Donner, whose career had been sputtering since he was fired from Superman II. Riggs' unpredictability is one reason why Lethal Weapon keeps the viewer on his seat's edge throughout; Donner's expert choreography of the thriller elements is the other. There's a desert shootout, a battle with an armed helicopter, and a lengthy climax involving torture, rescue, and a final face-off against the antagonists. There are plenty of explosions and shootings (IMDb.com pegs the body count at 26) but, because we like and care about the heroes, the action elements are exciting, not pointless. There were a great many action movies during the late 1980s; Lethal Weapon trails perhaps only Die Hard when it comes to energy, technical aptitude, and white knuckle moments.

The casting accounts for a significant portion of the film's charm. Although Mel Gibson's image has been tarnished in recent years, he was a rising superstar in 1987, and loved by all. Known primarily for his leading role in three Mad Max movies (Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Beyond Thunderdome), Gibson's adoption of the Riggs alter-ego was the move that pushed his career into overdrive. Going into Lethal Weapon, Gibson was no stranger to action junkies, but the same could not be said of Danny Glover. An expert character actor, Glover had a varied career and was best-known for turns in Places in the Heart, Silverado, and The Color Purple; Lethal Weapon gave him widespread recognition unlike anything he had previously experienced. His chemistry with Gibson is note-perfect; romantic comedy makers would kill to have male/female relationships that click like this. Their banter is lively, with lines being flicked back and forth like balls in a crisply played tennis match. I believe Lethal Weapon would have been entertaining if the entire 110 minute running time had been filled with nothing more than Riggs and Murtaugh hanging out, shooting the breeze. (It's not, of courseā€¦) The pairing of Gibson and Glover quickly supplanted Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte (of 48 Hours) as the favorite black/white duo in a mismatched buddy cop movie.

The heady mix of comedy and action made Lethal Weapon a winner with audiences, although its March release date depressed the potential box office. (Warner Brothers had limited faith in it.) It caught fire on home video and a sequel was ordered. Lethal Weapon 2 opened two years later and was a major success. Two more installments followed - both Lethal Weapon 3 and Lethal Weapon 4 were entertaining, but neither came close to matching the first two movies with respect to the core elements. Since the release of sequel #3 in 1998, there have been rumors of a Lethal Weapon 5 but, thus far, they have not come to fruition. Regardless of whether another installment comes to pass, we'll always have the first four and the remarkable lead partnership they provide. The interaction between Riggs and Murtaugh is the glue that holds the Lethal Weapon movies together, and the trait that makes the first installment so compulsively watchable.

Lethal Weapon (United States, 1987)

Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitchell Ryan, Tom Atkins, Darlene Love, Traci Wolfe
Screenplay: Shane Black
Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt
Music: Eric Clapton, Michael Kamen
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1987-03-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1