Die Hard always ranks high on lists of favourite “alternative” Christmas films, but it’s not the only Yuletide-themed actioner that deserves attention. Produced in 1987, Lethal Weapon is a bona fide ’80s action gem, a skilfully mounted buddy cop adventure laced with razor-sharp, witty dialogue, memorable characters and remarkable bursts of R-rated action. Lethal Weapon may not have invented or revolutionised the buddy cop or action-comedy genres, but it definitely refined both of them, proving to be a top-flight example of the possibilities of the formula when contributions are sound right across the board. Moreover, on top of being a remarkable instance of late-80s action, the film introduces a pair of memorable central characters.
A veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Glover) is on the verge of celebrating his 50th birthday, and is consequently eyeing retirement. When a sexy model is found dead after an apparent suicide from jumping off her apartment balcony, Murtaugh is pulled into the case and partnered with loose canon Martin Riggs (Gibson) to investigate. Owing to the untimely death of his wife, Riggs is a suicidal hot head; half the police force thinks Riggs is crazy, while the other half believe he’s trying to earn a psycho pension. Developing a hesitant friendship, the two find themselves tracking a pair of dangerous drug smugglers, and the “suicide” turns out to be a murder case that’s far more complicated than initially imagined.
It’s clear that writer Shane Black and director Richard Donner knew their audience, as Lethal Weapon caters to the action crowd in a tremendously satisfying fashion. In the very first scene, the film provides a smattering of drugs, boobs and violence. It’s one hell of a way to set the tone, and the rest of the picture easily lives up to this promise. Without a doubt, the film works as well as it does thanks to Black’s screenplay. Black’s contributions are often overlooked since the production is practically faultless from top to bottom, but it cannot be overstated how fantastic this script truly is since it was his ticket into Hollywood. Lethal Weapon‘s dialogue is consistently engaging and witty, and Black mixes the humour and action with tender character development and moments of pathos. It also indulges in his love of Christmas, which is evident in most all of his films. While the Lethal Weapon sequels rely on set-pieces and are driven by their respective cop cases, this first instalment is driven by the personal journeys of these characters, affording depth and humanity to what could’ve just been an enjoyable but forgettable distraction. It goes without saying that the narrative is standard-order, but the execution is remarkable, and that’s what truly matters.
Fortunately, for all of its character dramatics, Lethal Weapon does not skim on the pyrotechnics. Ever the blockbuster veteran, Donner orchestrates a string of magnificent action set-pieces and conflicts scattered throughout the narrative, embracing the possibilities of the picture’s R rating. Action was arguably at its pinnacle during the 1980s, and Lethal Weapon is solid reinforcement of this opinion, with its fluid camerawork and crisp editing easily superior to a lot of today’s big-budget pretenders. However, the film does have its dumb moments. In the final sequence, Riggs decides not to simply arrest the bad guy, but have a punch-up with him instead while dozens of policemen stand around watching. It’s an entertaining fight, to be sure, but the foundation is a bit shaky, and it feels like the only time in the film that action is being forced. For the record, the extended director’s cut is this reviewer’s preferred version. Some may find it too long, but the additional scenes deserve a place in the picture, providing extra action, a few extra laughs, and added character depth.
While Lethal Weapon is vehemently a buddy movie, it’s very much Mel Gibson’s party. Back in 1987, Mel was a rising star and everybody adored him, and it’s easy to see why: he’s a fantastic actor. One of the finest performances of his career is our first encounter with Martin Riggs. Gibson has intensity on tap, and he balances depression with superb comic timing and edgy energy. His emotional outbursts are unexpectedly powerful, as well. One key scene depicts Riggs contemplating suicide, sobbing as he sticks a gun into his mouth before realising that he can’t do it. Gibson’s acting in this scene is riveting, showing how much this guy genuinely deserves an Oscar for his thespian skills. Likewise, Glover could have turned Roger Murtaugh into a one-note bore, but the actor created a complex, devoted family man, and he matches Gibson step for step. The chemistry between Glover and Gibson is absolutely killer – it’s hard to think of any male/female relationships in romantic comedies that click as brilliantly as these two. Watching Glover and Gibson trade witty banter is an absolute pleasure. Lethal Weapon additionally benefits from the inclusion of Gary Busey as Mr. Joshua, the main villain’s henchman. Busey is a fine actor who’s as entertaining on the screen as he is off-camera, and he makes for a top-notch bad guy.
The Lethal Weapon series is ultimately tarnished by the amount of sequels it warranted. Although the sequels are entertaining enough, four movies is pushing it. As the series progressed, things became more action-oriented and the tone veered more into the comedic realm. This first film, on the other hand, nails the mix of action and comedy, with Donner shifting between the two tonal extremes with utmost dexterity. For action fans, the film is a godsend, but more casual movie fans will also find a lot to like due to how thoroughly enjoyable the enterprise is. And I don’t know about you, but I’ll always be watching this one come Christmas Eve.