Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1987)

11. Lethal Weapon

I have professed my love for eighties action movies before. It was a magical decade where the biceps, explosions, and body counts were bigger. The films were excessive, outrageous and, well, awesome. An important part of the eighties action wave was the buddy cop movie. Movies in this genre existed before “Lethal Weapon.” “48 Hrs.” was an obvious, important predecessor and the idea is even older then that. However, when I think of two mismatched cops becoming partners and learning to love each other despite their differences, I think of “Lethal Weapon.” There’s no doubt that it’s the most iconic example of the buddy cop subgenre.

Roger Murtaugh is an experienced cop who just turned fifty. He’s a family man, a veteran, and a by-the-books guy. Martin Riggs, meanwhile, has problems. He lost his wife a few months ago and he’s taking it… Badly. Riggs is suicidal, putting a gun to his head more then once. He’s acting reckless and dangerous. Because of his crazy behavior, he’s been paired up with Murtaugh as his partners. The studious Murtaugh and the unhinged Riggs are a rough match at first. However, they soon realize their weird chemistry works for them, becoming friends. Together, the two uncover a heroin smuggling plot by a covert military operation and the dangerous villains behind it.

“Lethal Weapon” welcomed us to the world of Shane Black. Black basically lived the screenwriter’s dream. Right out of UCLA , he immediately sold a screenplay to a huge producer, Joel Silver. Silver loved the script and got it fast-tracked. An experienced hit-maker, Richard Donner, got attached as director. The movie went on to be a huge hit and Shane Black was the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood. Wow! “Lethal Weapon” introduced many of Black’s trademarks. The film revolves around tough men and the camaraderie they form. Somebody gets kidnapped. The story takes place at Christmas. Most importantly, the plot is completely irrelevant, a series of good guy/bad guy confrontations held together by some unimportant conspiracy.

By 1987, Mel Gibson was already an established star. He had led the “Mad Max” series from cult phenomenon to mainstream blockbuster and had even earned some critical recognition for “The Year of Living Dangerously” and “The Bounty.” “Lethal Weapon,” however, is the movie that made him a superstar. Martin Riggs is a character perfectly suited to Mel Gibson’s charms. Riggs is a troubled man. The character is casually shown putting a gun to his head and smashing a TV. His establishing moment is when he busts up a cocaine deal behind a Christmas tree lot, the deal rising to disagreement and eventually violence. Or maybe it’s the direct way he deals with a potential jumper. Gibson is able to play Riggs as more then just an outrageous daredevil with a death wish. He brings a humanity to the part, while maintaining that essential Gibsonian charm and riotous humor.

Danny Glover’s Murtaugh, meanwhile, is the ideal foil for Riggs. He’s introduced in the bathtub, his kids and wife bringing him a cake and telling him he looks fifty. In other words, he’s a family man. The second establishing moment he has comes when he utters the immortal line, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” This is not so much about Murtaugh’s age as it is how established he is, about showing his roots. Glover has no problem filling the part. He brings an innate likable to Murtaugh, with an affable, wise edge. Glover can also be tough though, when the occasion calls for it, and he is effective in that role too.

More important is the relationship between the two. Naturally, at first, Murtaugh is suspicious of the guy. He finds his method unorthodox. Despite that, there is an immediate spark. Their early moments together, when Riggs is munching on a hot dog and the two are casually scooping out assignments together, are friendly and light. The pivotal moment comes when Murtaugh realizes Riggs isn’t faking, that he’s really crazy. After that, the two develop an honest friendship. Murtaugh invites him over for dinner with his family. They bond on his fishing boat. The best part is when they are formulating the case together, casually shooting the shit about what may or may be happen. It’s a fun way to keep the wheels on the story turning while also deepening the relationship between the guys.

The relationship is important, especially since these guys are totally gay for each other. You can joke all you want about the supposed homoeroticism beneath eighties action movies. Buddy cop flicks may not feature as many bulging pectorals as other flick in this style. The movies are, however, about two guys falling in love. And there’s no shortage of casual male nudity. Glover is introduced in the bath. Mel awakes in the nude, walking through his trailer, showing his ass. Later, Riggs picks up a hooker and, pointedly, doesn’t sleep with her. The two end the movie in a manly embrace, Murtaugh in a tight tank top and Riggs shirtless and sweaty. Yeah, Glover is married. But his wife doesn’t understand him the way Gibson does. Her cooking is awful, right, and he can only share that secret with his truest bro. See, they’re totally into each other.

Any eighties action flick is incomplete without at least two sinister bad guys. The villain motivating the plot is Mitchell Ryan’s General. (Who has a name but is credited as only the General.) Ryan is the one controlling the scheme and is the ominous man with the plan. Ryan is a fine bad guy, full of sinister intent. However, he’s not the physical threat to the heroes. That honor falls to Gary Busey’s Mr. Joshua. Before he became a walking pop culture punchline, Busey was a character actor capable of some intense performance. Now, he’s someone famous for being crazy. Once, he was famous for playing crazy. Busey’s Joshua is genuinely intimidating. He’s introduced setting himself on fire like that’s not a big deal. He flies up in a helicopter and kills Tom Atkins. He blows away cops with ease. He introduces the hero to cold water electrode torture. All the while, Busey maintains his straight-ahead intensity and his fantastic pair of crazy eyes. The combination of all this makes Mr. Joshua a classic eighties bad guy.

The supporting cast is solid too. Tom Atkins, one of the coolest guys in the world, has a juicy role as Hunsaker, the man’s daughter starts off the investigation. Atkins gets to grimace under his mustache and has a cool death scene, involving a carton of egg nog. Former soul singer Darlene Love has some nice motherly moments as Murtaugh’s wife. I like it when she cleans an egg off the floor. Traci Wolfe as his oldest daughter has some cute moments flirting with Gibson. Naturally, she gets captured and spends the latter third of the movie a screaming hostage. And here’s a shout-out to Al Leong, veteran stunt guy and martial artist, as Endo the torture master.

“Lethal Weapon” is full of comic banter and light-hearted moment. This is still an action movie though. Riggs blows a sniper away early on. Later, guys are getting shotgunned while Mel dives and shoots. A house explodes in a massive, disproportionately big fireball. There are intense stand-offs involving grenades and machine guns. Murtaugh is beaten bloody. Riggs strangles a guy with his legs. There’s a daring escape through a night club, involving suddenly violent shots to the gut. Danny Glover has a Mexican stand-off with a car and that sequence also ends in a giant explosion. Mel runs down the street, shirt flying open, shooting a gun into the air, rushing through a busy highway. None of this stuff is revolutionary in its execution. It’s still entertaining and well executed.

For the finale, “Lethal Weapon” goes straight-ahead into stupid macho bullshit. Mr. Joshua gets away but already knows where Murtaugh lives. The good guys know this too and are prepared. Murtaugh crashes a fucking car through his own house. This leads to Riggs and Joshua having a kung-fu wrestling match on Danny Glover’s front yard. There are punches, kicks, body slams, and neck holds. Gary Busey picks up a lamp post, swinging it like a spear. Mel Gibson gets tossed a nightstick and immediately employs it like a tonfa, deflecting the bad guy’s blows. Real cops show up but Danny Glover tells them to stand back and let these guys fight it out like men. “Lethal Weapon” mostly stays grounded in reality but this sequence is a headful of crazy nonsense. It’s dumb enough that it takes the audience out of the movie. It’s not even especially effective in a cool movie sort of way. Two guys wrasslin’ in a muddy yard is the best Shane Black could have come up with? Why couldn’t we have gotten another giant explosion instead?

These days, most action movie scores are made of pounding bass. When it comes to eighties movies, everyone associates the decade with cheesy synth. “Lethal Weapon,” instead, has a bluesy, slow burn score. Michael Kamen provides some build-up that’s noir-like in its intensity and features more then one boozy saxophone. Backing him up, of all people, is Eric Clapton on guitar. Clapton’s roaring guitars adds another macho edge to a movie that’s already pretty damn macho. Does the score work entirely? Not really. Is it another thing that adds to the “Lethal Weapon” magic? Sure.

“Lethal Weapon” eventually succumbs to its own meat-headed dumbness. Until then, it’s a funny buddy flick with an above-average cast and a chaotic energy all its own. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s chemistry and Black’s zippy screenplay keeps the entire thing afloat. The movie does not entirely live up to its reputation as the Greatest Buddy Cop Movie of all time. It’s best enjoyed as what it originally was: An unexpected hit, a solid popcorn muncher, and a good way to waste two hours. Twenty-eight years later, this shit still hasn’t gotten old. [Grade: B]

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