To the strains of Jingle Bell Rock, director Richard Donner leads us by the hand through that OTHER Christmas themed, super violent actioner that for some reason DOESN’T seem to get all that “is it a Christmas film?” shit that gets stirred up the second it hits December. It’s a shame that it doesn’t because the adventures of mismatched detectives Riggs and Murtaugh, while not exactly as polished as John McClane’s Christmas Eve jaunt through a terrorist infested building, is still top notch action cinema by any stretch of the imagination. Are we ready? Then cue saxophone…
Detective Roger Murtaugh has hit the age of fifty like a brick wall, he isn’t feeling too great about it and to make matters worse, the daughter of an old buddy from ‘Nam has overdosed and taken a header off a balcony and he’s been assigned a new partner in the form of Martin Riggs, an unhinged wild card made all the more unstable by the recent death of his wife.
While Murtaugh tries to keep Riggs in line – despite the latter pulling stunts like hurling himself off a roof with the suicidal man he was supposed to talk down – it becomes apparent that the overdose of the daughter is hiding something more sinister and the duo eventually find themselves in the crosshairs of General McCallester and his mercenary goons who have ensconced themselves firmly into the heroin distribution market. Before you can say “bonding experiences” the partners are fighting for their lives in the streets of LA in order to bring the criminals to justice but can Murtaugh get on the same page as his potentially deranged partner and can Riggs truly find peace in the form of acceptance from Roger and his family?
There’s many similarities that Lethal Weapon shares with it’s spiritual cousin and fellow yule tide set bullet fest, Die Hard; not least the fact that they both share uber producer Joel Silver and composer Michael Kamen (responsible for every blast of that saxophone every time Murtaugh pauses). It even features a standout performance from it’s lead which launched them steadily into the Hollywood A-list but both are very different movies despite the fact that on paper, Lethal Weapon doesn’t seem that original at all. Sure, there’s the buddy movie aspect of it all but there’d been buddy movies before, overflowing with charisma and rat-ta-tat-tat dialogue (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid springs instantly to mind), but nothing quite like this. So what exactly made Lethal Weapon such a crystallization of the buddy cop movie?
Yes the more than capable direction and breezily endearing performances are a massive factor but none of it could have come together without the script penned by a young Shane Black. Black – who would go on to scribble out many more Xmas time, buddy actioners with The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight and would go on to write/direct Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys and – errrrr…. The Predator – had created a script wildly over the top with magnificently stylized dialogue, larger than life characters and more heart than a butcher’s shop stock room, that didn’t skimp on explosions and multiple calibre bullets whizzing all over the place.
Director Richard Donner (surely one of the safest hands in 80’s blockbuster cinema) who in his career has already dominated the horror genre with The Omen, created the modern superhero movie with Superman and had even delved into Spielbergian adventure with The Goonies, attacked the action movie with an enthusiastic vigor, taking Black’s superlative script and running with it as aggressively as a “Karen” the day after Black Friday.
Also grasping the muscular script with both hands and expertly massaging even further greatness from it are the leads.
Mel Gibson, sporting a mullet that somehow is as wild, untamed and loaded with dangerous sexual magnetism as he is, flat out conquers Hollywood while we watch. Veering drunkenly (better get used to that, Mel) from bug eyed mania to hollowed out grief to chiselled leading man to even acting out Three Stooges skits to uncomprehending crooks, the notorious actor dazzles as a loose cannon desperate to eat a bullet in the line of duty. In comparison, Glover desperately clings on for dear life as much as his character does as his new partner drags him from one crazy incident to the next, all the while cornering the market in under-the-breath complaints and laments about his advancing age. Simply put, the chemistry is astounding and the back and forth between the two is pure gold.
“God hates me, that’s what it is.” Bitches Murtaugh when trying to adjust to an unadjusted partner, “Hate him back. Works for me.” Snaps back Riggs on a dime. And who can forget the series legendary mantra of – altogether now – “I’m getting too old for this shit!” – and again, cue saxophone….
An extra nod goes to the infamous Gary Busey as the decidedly dead-behind-the-eyes henchman, Mr. Joshua. He infuses the henchmen with a truly threatening aura despite being swathed in some truly upsetting jumpers but one wonders about the wisdom of hiring someone with Busey’s checkered past to actually LOOK AFTER drugs without absorbing them into his bloodstream the second he lays eyes on them…
Everyone else gamely dives in (Jesus Christ, even B-movie actor extraordinaire Tom fuckin’ Atkins is in this, what MORE do you need?) and the action shit is great stuff and is effortlessly energetic enough as to make you forget how tremendously unlikely all the genre tropes are. Take Gibbo’ sprinting through the crowded Los Angeles streets with his shirt open and openly brandishing a machine gun presumably thinking that this isn’t going to get him fired quicker than a hiccup (it doesn’t, God, I love movies) and then later asks us to buy into a world where police would openly stand around and let Riggs and Joshua fight to the death in Murtaugh’s front lawn.
A stone cold action classic that isn’t mentioned nearly enough when the silly season comes around, Lethal Weapon is a top notch slice of cops and robbers that cemented the buddy cop movie and contains one of the premier cinematic pairings of the decade.
Annnnnd, cue saxophone….