Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, June 17, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1989)

13. Lethal Weapon 2

The first “Lethal Weapon” was a big hit in its day, cementing Mel Gibson’s status as a superstar, Danny Glover as everyone’s favorite black friend, and making Shane Black Hollywood’s reigning smart-ass. Because any major action hit is worth at least several sequels, “Lethal Weapon 2” went into production not long after that. The sequel was out two years after the original. Everyone important from the first was back – Mel, Danny, director Richard Donner – except for Shane Black. After his idea of killing Riggs’ off was vetoed, he left the project. I’m going to present the idea that this was not only better for Lethal Weapon: The Franchise but for Lethal Weapon: The Movie.

A year has passed since the events of “Lethal Weapon.” Riggs and Murtaugh’s friendship has grown only stronger. An investigation into a drug smuggling ring, and a car chase involving a tank of illegal South African money, leads them to uncover a conspiracy. The local South African diplomats are the ones running the drugs and they’re using their diplomatic immunity to protect themselves. Throw in a motor-mouthed witness and a last minute personal connection Riggs has with the bad guys, and you’ve got yourself a movie.

For all the praise Shane Black’s writing gets, the first “Lethal Weapon” was obviously the work of a first time screenwriter. The villain’s plot was vaguely defined and was practically an afterthought to the movie’s main point, which was the bonding between the two leads. “Lethal Weapon 2,” meanwhile, has a tighter story. Most every event in the film ties together. The opening car chase, the comic relief, the love interest, and the bad guys are all connected. This builds towards a more solid, fuller plot. Furthermore, the movie is better paced, balancing the action and humor. Just from a story perspective, “Lethal Weapon 2” is a more satisfying movie then the first.

Of course, even in a more tightly paced “Lethal Weapon” movie, the main attraction will always be the bromance between Riggs and Murtaugh. At the start of part two, the guys are practically living together. Riggs still lives in his tiny trailer with his dog, Sam, but spends enough time at Murtaugh’s place that he has full access to the fridge and does his laundry there. An obvious example of how totally their dynamic has changed is presented early on. There’s an offhand line about Riggs’ new pills, suggesting he’s being medicated for his depression. Mel Gibson remains a loose cannon but his actual death wish is gone, meaning his behavior has been reduced to generic ‘tude. For the most part, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover act even more like a married couple.

While watching the first movie, a viewer with a keen eye might have noticed the anti-Apartheid bumper sticker on Murtaugh’s fridge. This is probably just a coincidence but it’s an interesting one. With the sequel, the “Lethal Weapon” series decided to update its rogue galleries from drug dealers and baddies in suits to real world villains. The South African villains are also running drugs and wearing ominous suits. However, their pale white skin color, creepy names like “Arjen” or “Vorstedt,” and virulent racism makes them far more despicable. Moreover, the baddies have a great gimmick. When the heroes try to hassle Arjen, he throws that “diplomatic immunity” thing in their face. He’s an untouchable villain, at least until the central duo goes above the law. Joss Ackland as Arjen has the right layer of smugness and greasy assholery to be a perfectly hatable villain. Derrick O’Connor as Pieter Vorstedt, his primary henchman, is a fully cold-blooded assassin. This is just a further example of how the action genre exists to shoot down real life boogeyman in a fantasy settings.

“Lethal Weapon 2” is also more consistently funny then the first film. Most of the humor in the first came from contrasting the two cop’s vastly different attitudes. Since one half of the duo has chilled out considerably, the movie instead has to mine the actor’s different strength for laughs. Murtaugh’s daughter gets her first big acting job... Which turns out to be a condom commercial. Danny Glover’s stunned silence is priceless. It becomes a running joke throughout the movie. In a solid bit of continuity, the Murtaugh house is undergoing repairs from the chaos at the end of the last movie. In this one, the top half of the house is blown up. Aside from hanging out with his dog and watching the Three Stooges, which is adorable, Riggs takes the time to intimidate the baddies by shooting up their fish tank and doing a Nazi salute, which is hilarious. In general, the character’s ability to bullshit his way in and out of most any situation remains amusing.

With the Gibson/Glover chemistry well established by this point, the producers felt the need to shake things up by introducing a new character. After the opening car chase, the two cops get reassigned to protect Leo Getz, a key witness. (Who is, naturally, connected to the main plot.) Enter: Joe Pesci. Pesci plays Getz as a constant glad-hander. He’s an, shall we say, unorthodox tax accountant and is constantly asking to do favors for the two leads, whether they want it or not. Getz is full of bullshit but always smiling and schmoozing. It’s a nice change-up on Pesci’s usually vulgar schtick while remaining solidly in his wheelhouse. Was Getz a necessary addition to the movie? Probably not but, eh, what the hell, he’s not so bad.

“Lethal Weapon 2” is probably most notorious for one specific sequence. That’s right, I’m talking about the toilet bomb. Riggs heads over to Murtaugh’s place to find him stranded on the crapper, unable to move for hours because of a bomb strapped to the toilet seat. Though a fairly ridiculous idea, it works much better in execution. Gibson and Glover’s chemistry fills the scene with some honest humor, because it’s damn embarrassing, but also builds some decent tension, because a beloved character’s life is in danger. The way Mel is willing to stay behind to help his endangered friend is touching in the series’ trademark bro-tastic way. And it’s hard to undersell the inherent comedic value of an exploding toilet. There’s no question that its the centerpiece of the movie.

An early, actually rather touching scene involving a gold pen reminds the audience that Riggs is still a recovering widower. Despite this, the death of his wife doesn’t hang over him throughout the whole film. Perhaps still playing off Mel Gibson’s 1985-vintage Sexiest Man Alive status, his character receives a new love interest. From the moment Riggs meets Rika, the South African consulate secretary, there’s an obvious interest. However, it’s not until he finds her at the grocery store, where they have an extended meet-cute involving produce, that the romance kicks into high gear. A few minutes later, the two are in bed, commencing an enthusiastic all-night-long session of sex. Maybe romance would work this way for Mel Gibson in 1989 but, to everyone else, it seems seriously rushed. Patsy Kensit is cute in the part and has alright chemistry with Gibson, especially when the two are escaping a machine gunned trailer. The character’s role is so small though, she doesn’t make much of an impact.

And then the movie kills her off. Much like the first movie, “Lethal Weapon 2” undergoes a severe tonal change in the last act. Rika is killed off-screen and Chekov’s Dislocated Shoulder is employed to help Riggs out of the death trap. In an especially strangled bit of writing, we discover that the movie’s bad guys were also responsible for the death of Rigg’s wife. This prompts the cop to toss away his badge and go on a roaring rampage of revenge. Yes, the bit about his wife is stretching. Yeah, the movie shifting from light action/comedy to dark revenge thriller is sudden. But as far as last act shenanigans, it works to successfully ups the stakes, leaving the film with a very intense climax. Also, you’ve got Mel Gibson yanking a building apart with his truck. That’s as hard to resist as an exploding toilet!

As I mentioned above, the “Lethal Weapon” series has surprisingly great continuity. Just about every minor player from the first movie returns for the sequel. Darlene Love’s role as Mrs. Murtaugh is fairly small but she has a good energy with Danny Glover in the handful of scenes they share together. As the required ball-busting chief, Steve Kahan returns as Captain Murphy. As usual, he seems to really enjoy harassing the movie’s stars. Even Mary Ellen Trainor, otherwise known as the mom from “The Monster Squad” and several other eighties classics, even comes back as police psychologist Stephanie Woods.

Befitting a sequel, the action is bigger and better. This is a movie that opens with a car chase, that finishes up with a car ramming into a storefront. An apartment brawl finishes with the fight exploding out a window, falling down the length of the building, and into a swimming pool. A pretty decent car chase has vehicles sailing through the air and exploding. When attacked in his under-construction home, Murtaugh cleverly employs a nail gun to defend himself. A lengthy section in the middle of the movie is devoted to giant explosions, as the bad guys eliminated anyone who could potentially get in their way. The action-packed finale features plenty of impressive gun fight and is set against a shipping yard, with all sort of giant metal crates. That last feature plays a role in a memorable execution of one of the lead villains. If nothing else, “Lethal Weapon 2” is definitely a more impressive action film then the first one.

The movie also has the good sense to wrap things up immediately after the bad guys are all dead. The murder of his girlfriend only happened a few hours ago and he’s full of bullets but Riggs is still in good enough spirit to crack jokes with his best buddy. As usual, the charm of Gibson and Glover together goes a long way to cover up the bumps in the script. For fans of eighties action and buddy cop goofball laughs, “Lethal Weapon 2” is hard to top. [Grade: B+]

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