Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, June 24, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1998)

20. Lethal Weapon 4

It’s hard to believe that by 1998, they we’re still making “Lethal Weapon” movies. It had been six years since the last entry in the series. Richard Donner and Mel Gibson seemed to have moved on with their other collaborations. Danny Glover was hardly a box office superstar by this point. R-rated action tentpoles were not entirely extinct yet but we’re certainly less common. Not only were audience’s taste changing but so were the movies. But if something makes money, Hollywood will follow it anywhere. And the “Lethal Weapon” movies made money. So in 1998, despite no one demanding it, “Lethal Weapon 4” went before audiences.

In the middle of an active crime scene, Riggs is told that he’s going to be a father. He then turns around and tells Murtaugh that he’s going to be a grandfather. Knowing that their lives are about to change effects their perspectives on things. After stumbling upon a boat full of kidnapped Chinese people, the cops are involved in a new plot. Triad crime bosses are importing slaves into this country. Murtaugh takes it personally and takes some of them into his home. The path to track down those responsible uncovers a counterfeiting plot, the major Chinese crime bosses, and a super pissed off martial arts hitman.

By the time most series reach part four, they’re long in the tooth. The previous year, the original “Lethal Weapon” had celebrated its tenth anniversary. Danny Glover was saying he was too old for this shit for a decade. To its credit, “Lethal Weapon 4” acknowledges the passing of time. Both characters take the beatings they receive a little harder. They aren’t as pliable as they once were. One of the best scenes in the movie involves the two giving one another a mutual pep talk about their advancing age that concludes with an excited, dual shouting of “We’re not too old for this shit!” Despite their words to the contrary, both guys aren’t as young as they used to be.

With that focus on age comes a new focus on parenthood. Riggs is going to be a dad for the first time. Murtaugh is going to be a grandparent for the first time. He’s been a dad for all three movies but, since both are experiencing this now, the movie is really focusing on what’s at stake. Suddenly, Riggs is more conscious about the danger he’s putting himself in, about how this will the lives of his loved ones. How’s that for character development? In the first movie, Riggs wanted to die. Now, he emphatically wants to stay alive. The movie references that change, with Riggs talking more about his dead wife then in either previous sequel.

Also over the last two sequels, the “Lethal Weapon” franchise became the series that weaved serious real world issues into its silly action movie universe. With the fourth entry, Richard Donner and his crew turn their eyes on human trafficking. The bad guys are importing people from China in order to use them as personal slaves. This effects Murtaugh specifically, as he sees parallels between this modern form of slavery and the type of slavery that effected his ancestors. Human trafficking remains a serious problem in the world today. Honestly, out of all the topics the series took on, this one feels a little too heavy for a silly, light-hearted buddy cop flick.

This plot element allows the movie to introduce something else though. In the mid-nineties, Hong Kong kung-fu movies experienced a revival in popularity. Suddenly, giant explosions and lots of guns were not enough for modern action audiences. High risk stunts and creative acrobatics were required. For the first time in its history, the “Lethal Weapon” series decided to chase a popular trend. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover weren’t doing back flips or using a ladder to defend themselves, so Jet Li was brought in as the main villain, to provide a new flavor to this aging franchise. The producers originally wanted Jackie Chan. He turned it down due to his “no bad guys” rules. Chan would instead appear in the same year’s “Rush Hour,” a different buddy cop movie that would more directly fuse Hong Kong elements and American action attitudes.

So how does Jet Li, the second biggest name in Hong Kong action at the time, do as the bad guy? Li plays Wah Sing Ku, a brutal Triad enforcer determined to do things his way. The character doesn’t speak English, all his dialogue being subtitled. A result of this is that Li is silent throughout most of the movie. This is actually a good choice, as it makes Wah Sing Ku a straight-ahead killing machine. A nice gimmick has him executing his targets with a garrote hidden inside a string of beads. Li is an intimating presence and easily the best “Lethal Weapon” villain since Gary Busey in part one. For extra bonus points, the movie also throws in Conan Lee, a minor martial artist actor, as Ku’s brother and experience Asian-American character actor Kim Chan as Uncle Benny, the amusing Triad crime boss.

By this point in the “Lethal Weapon” universe, Leo Getz is an essential element that has to appear in each movie. I don’t know when or why it became this way but it did. By now, Getz has evolved into a full-blown Joe Pesci character. He repeatedly goes on rants about cell phones and traffic cops, using his now catchphrase about things fucking him. Pesci barely contributes to the plot, making his continued inclusion baffling. Another addition to the series is Rene Russo as Lorna Cole. Cole was just as tough as her male co-stars in the last movie. This time, however, she’s pregnant with Riggs’ kid, meaning Russo spends most of the film on the sideline. Even as someone who wasn’t the biggest fan of her in part three, I think it’s kind of unfair how they sideline the character here. She gets one brief moment of action, wrestling a knife from an attacker.

Another weird rule that has developed over the franchise is that each film must add to the “Lethal Weapon” family. Part four adds Chris Rock as Lee Butters, an enthusiastic young detective who is secretly the father of Murtaugh’s grandchild. In 1998, Rock was probably the biggest stand-up comic in the world and at the peak of his popularity. The movie bends backwards to accommodate Rock’s abilities. At least twice it stops the movie cold so that Butters can go on a Rock-ian rant, first about race and the second about cell phones. This is a bit at odds with Butters as a character, who is trying to impress his future father-in-law. The stand-up style rants are mildly amusing but slightly disappointing since Rock is better then the parts when allowed to act.

Humor remains an issue in “Lethal Weapon 4.” Some of the jokes are in keeping with the series’ style. Riggs intimidates a crime boss by smashing his two-way mirror and setting off the fire sprinklers, which is in-character and mildly funny. A decent, reoccurring gag as everyone mispronouncing Butters’ name, which he doesn’t comment on. A less funny reoccurring gag has Murtaugh misinterpreting Butters’ attempts to impress him as Butters hitting on him, a gay panic joke that really hasn’t aged well. Some of the other, broader gags don’t hit as well. An early appearance by a shark feels very over-the-top. A way-too-long gag has the entire team huffing a dentist’s laughing gas, sending them all into giggling, incoherent fits. It’s amusing at first but the film stretches it out too far. In general, the movie should have more laughs.

In another attempt to perhaps stay up-to-date, “Lethal Weapon 4” inflates the action too. The opening scene has Riggs and Murtaugh fighting a madman in home-made armor, wielding a flamethrower and a machine gun. When shot, the flamethrower’s tank explodes, sending him flying into a fuel truck which then also explodes, in an even bigger fireball. Not long afterwards, a shoot-out on a boat also results in some bigger-then-average blasts. The overdone pyrotechnics don’t work as well but the other attempts to up the action do. A fight across a freeway, which involves a tussle inside a moving vehicle and Riggs sliding across the asphalt by a trail of plastic, works fantastically. It’s probably the best action scene in a “Lethal Weapon” flick in a while. The climatic scene ups the visceral violence. Jet Li beats Mel and Danny to a bloody pulp. In response, Glover impales Li with a giant drill bit. The fight ends with an especially graphic machine gun wound. The movie toys with killing off either Riggs or Murtaugh but wimps out at the last minute. The power of male bonding brings them both back from the edge of death.

“Lethal Weapon 4” is the only film in the series to run longer then two hours. The last seventeen minutes tacks an extended coda on. Riggs consults his death wife about his future. There’s an actually pretty good monologue from Joe Pesci about a dead pet frog. There’s a hospital visit, a rabbi, two babies, and a reaffirmation of the themes of family. Oh what, you didn’t realize family was the prevailing theme of the “Lethal Weapon” series? Okay, maybe that’s one way to look at this. Yet shoving all of this into the literal last few minutes of the movie makes it feel shoveled in and sudden.

”Lethal Weapon 4” made money but was not as monstrous a hit as the previous entries in the series. Despite the public seemingly having all they wanted from Riggs and the gang, the possibility of a “Lethal Weapon 5” was still thrown around for years afterwards. A lack of interest from Mel Gibson and Richard Donner sunk that. A reboot, possibly starring Riggs’ son, was considered at one point. Now, a television adaption is moving forward. It’s probably for the best. The fourth “Lethal Weapon” is better then the third but still ranks distantly behind one or two. The franchise was fun while it lasted and successfully ran its course before it was over. This time, they were right. They were too old for this shit. [Grade: B-]

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