IF THESE TWO CAN LEARN TO STAND EACH OTHER… THE BAD GUYS DON’T STAND A CHANCE.
I have happy memories from my life as a teenager, when I was in awe of the great action movies of the 1980s. There were Aliens, Die Hard… and there was definitely Lethal Weapon. Not as good as the others, but still worth watching over and over. Revisiting it at the age of 37 was very pleasant indeed, even though one begins to question exactly what it is about this film that still earns kudos so many years later.
Taking a suicidal leap
When a young woman, high on drugs, takes a suicidal leap from a highrise in Los Angeles, the case lands on homicide detective Roger Murtaugh’s (Danny Glover) desk. She turns out to be the daughter of an old friend who served in the Vietnam War. Murtaugh (who’s just turned 50 and is sensitive about his age) is also getting a new partner who’s not only younger but decidedly less stable. Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), a narcotics detective who’s just been transferred to Homicide, recently lost his wife in a traffic accident and is basically a loose cannon.
Murtaugh is anything but thrilled to partner up with Riggs, but the duo start looking into the alleged suicide of his friend’s daughter. They learn that the drugs she took were laced with drain cleaner, which would have killed her anyway. The clues lead to a drug ring operated by powerful men…
“Total dynamite” between stars
Director Richard Donner allegedly once said that the first reading between Gibson and Glover was “total dynamite”. I can definitely believe it. Opposites attract and there is a special connection between them in every scene. Glover (who was actually ten years younger than his character) perfectly embodies the easy-going dad, husband and cop who’s not terribly comfortable with a gun (although he does well in a funny scene at a shooting range), while Gibson brings some of his Mad Max edge to Riggs. He’s strangely likable as the suicidal detective, and the character has come to define Gibson in many ways. In light of his recent career struggles and public loose-cannon persona, you could make the argument that Martin and Mel are hard to separate. Gary Busey also got a boost as one of the villains, and his career never looked the same.
Lethal Weapon was a massive box-office hit, but not only because of its charismatic stars. It was also a lucky encounter between Donner and a fresh screenwriter called Shane Black, first noticed by producer Joel Silver (who would go on to make several more movies with Black). Donner, who had combined action with a sense of humor in his Superman movies, understood which elements of the project that would work. Because, let’s be fair, Black’s script has its flaws. For a drug ring this ambitious and long-running, its leaders are not exactly top of their class. The final showdown between Riggs and Joshua (Busey) is memorably dumb… but you can also see the crowd-pleasing potential and Donner knows which buttons to push. As for the music, the collaboration between Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton is a good start that would improve with the score for Lethal Weapon 2.
This is not an easy genre. The road to the perfect action movie is bumpier than you think. But this one knows how to work magic out of clichés. And playing a Christmas classic over the opening credits has become sort of how we imagine 1980s action movies.
Lethal Weapon 1987-U.S. 110 min. Color. Produced by Richard Donner, Joel Silver. Directed by Richard Donner. Screenplay: Shane Black. Music: Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton. Cast: Mel Gibson (Martin Riggs), Danny Glover (Roger Murtaugh), Gary Busey (Joshua), Mitchell Ryan (Peter McAllister), Tom Atkins, Darlene Love.
Trivia: Alternative version runs seven minutes longer. Bruce Willis was allegedly considered for a lead role, and Leonard Nimoy for directing duties. Followed by three sequels, starting with Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), and a TV series, Lethal Weapon (2016-2019).
Last word: “People talk all the time about a style that I think in the back of their minds they have this delusion that I pioneered this groundbreaking prose style for the text of the screenplay. It started with me looking at William Goldman; I read three of his scripts. Looking at Walter Hill, I read three of his. I just smashed them together and that was my style. I just said, ‘What is the medium between these two? That’s what I want to do.’ It may have evolved, but it started as a conundrum, how do you mix these two styles? In a way that’s just called learning. That’s called homage or imitation […] I only took the style because I was so enamored of it. I needed to do both of them, because I liked both of them equally well, but they’re totally different. They comment on themselves all the time (these two writers) and they’re more interesting for it because they tell the story like you’d tell it to a friend at a bar. They don’t get bogged down in cinematic convention. They are busy telling it to you the way it’s supposed to feel, not the way it’s been programmed to read.” (Black on preparing for the movie, Film Radar)