One of our common staples in our movie watching was the Lethal Weapon series. Now, at the time, there were only two Lethal Weapon flicks, although the third would come out at the end of our junior year. We loved these movies, and we could readily quote them as ably as we could Star Wars. And yet, once college was over, I pretty much let Lethal Weapon slide into memory a bit, only revisiting it briefly when Lethal Weapon 4 came out in the mid or late 90s. I remember that one being fun, but slightly forgettable. It's been at least eight or nine years since the last time I watched any of them.
This wasn't because I came to dislike them, I should note. They just faded from my memory. I moved on. Until, that is, I saw a set in a cheap DVD bin somewhere that included all four Lethal Weapons. For ten bucks, I had to buy it. This was about a year ago...and I forgot about the discs again. Until now. The other day I watched Lethal Weapon, the 1987 original. I expected it to feel like sliding into a comfortable article of clothing that I haven't worn in a very long time, and it did feel like that. But I also found myself admiring it more than ever. Lethal Weapon is still a terribly well-made film, exciting and thrilling and full of wit and verve. It has aged extremely well.
First, though, a brief aside about Mel Gibson. His behavior seems to get more indefensible every time he shows up in the news, which is a damned shame. I once counted him among my favorite actors, and he was starting, in the mid-90s into the first years of the 2000s, to show signs that his career was progressing in an Eastwoodian fashion, from action-and-genre star to more serious actor and pretty good director. I still love Braveheart, and The Man Without a Face is a terribly underrated film, in my opinion. But apparently there's been a very ugly underside to Gibson all these years, and the last five years or so, he's found it impossible to keep that underside hidden as he was once able to do. It's a damned shame, really. I think that Mel Gibson is a fantastically talented man...but apparently he's a colossal SOB to such a degree that it's hard to like his work as much as I once did.
What's good about Lethal Weapon? Lots of things. It's a buddy story, obviously, as well as a "redemption" story. Gibson's Martin Riggs is suicidal after the death (in a car crash) of his beloved wife; Glover's Roger Murtaugh is tired and weary as he approaches retirement. Both men are thrust together in an uneasy partnership as they become involved in a case involving the murder of the daughter of an old Army buddy of Murtaugh's, a case that leads to bigger and bigger things until Riggs and Murtaugh find themselves up against a drug-running operation of ex-CIA spooks.
All of the typical "buddy" movie tropes are here -- the uneasy, suspicious feelings between the two men at the outset; the clashes as their respective differences in how to do things rear their heads; the gradual opening of respect between the two as they get to know each other; the final act in which they depend on each other; the final scenes where their friendship is openly established. What makes this all special in Lethal Weapon is, in great part, the chemistry between our two leads; if ever any two actors were born to be in a movie together, Gibson and Glover are the guys. What makes it work even more, though, is that the film avoids easy epiphanies and Big Moments of Truth. Instead, we see the little moments that depict the lowering of defenses, the growing of understandings, and the fostering of friendship. The script is very well written, in this regard.
Consider the early scenes just after Riggs and Murtaugh have been paired up. Neither is thrilled about the situation, and Murtaugh keeps making digs at Riggs over his tendency to charge full-speed ahead into situations ("See? I shot him in the leg, which is why we can question him now. You cuff him, and I'll stand over here, being happy.") There's a moment where Murtaugh admits that his birthday was the day before, and Riggs says, "Maybe I'll get you a present. It's the least I can do, after the warmth you've shown me today." And while Murtaugh doesn't really say anything to this, his facial expression relents. A bit.
There is a big confrontation scene which comes immediately on the heels of one of the film's biggest laughs; going from a hilarious scene (in which Riggs has to talk down a jumper from a tall building) right into a tension-filled confrontation as Murtaugh tries to ascertain whether Riggs actually is suicidal is a master stroke in the film. In this scene, Riggs admits that he thinks about suicide every day -- "Every. Single. Day." -- but the one thing that keeps him from pulling the trigger is the prospect of still being a cop. "Doing the job".
Which is why it's so great that when it comes time for one of the two men to realize that the case they've just wrapped up is actually anything but, it's Riggs who makes the realization. This partnership and this case are reawakening his brain. And in the same way, working with Riggs is reawakening Murtaugh's. It just works very well. I also like the depiction of Murtaugh's normal family life, and the way that Riggs becomes welcome in that family very quickly.
Of course, the main attraction of an action flick is...the action, which is first-rate all the way through, even during the admittedly goofy final fight between Riggs and Gary Busey's "Mr. Joshua". The film is full of first-rate stunt work, and Richard Donner is always good at directing chaos and mayhem so it's violent and kinetic and yet easy to follow. He even manages to make it plausible when Riggs takes off on foot after Mr. Joshua, who has just stolen a car.
Lethal Weapon is one of the best action films of the 80s. For my money, it's every bit as good as Die Hard, which is commonly held as the action movie gold standard.