Lethal Weapon 2: looking back at an excellent sequel

Is Lethal Weapon 2 the best of the series? There's certainly an argument...

Very few films manage to achieve this – indeed I’d welcome any suggestions in the comments – but the whole of Lethal Weapon 2 is thematically summarised in its first fifteen seconds. And it’s all down to the opening musical cue (by the late composer Michael Kamen) that plays over the animated title card.

It begins with a dramatic, tension-filled drumroll before segueing into a cartoonish banjo-twang and a Loony Tunes-inspired fanfare. We then get an extended crescendo of strings reminiscent of a high-stakes thriller, giving way to a police siren and the familiar wails of a bluesy saxophone.

As an audio encapsulation of everything that’s about to transpire over the next 120 minutes it’s pretty much spot on: tense, comedic, exhilarating and comfortingly recognisable all in equal measure.

For many people Lethal Weapon 2 is the best of the franchise, and it’s easy to see why: funnier and more action-packed than the original, the sequel deftly zeroes in on the crowd-pleasing aspects of the original and turns them up to eleven.

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The very first sequence is a perfect distillation of the so-called ‘magic’ that made the original film a hit: thrills, stunts, laughs, and class-A banter between our two leading characters Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) as they bicker about preserving the condition of the brand new station wagon in which they find themselves conducting a high-speed chase.

There’s a confidence flowing through the film that carries you along; you always feel as if you’re in safe hands. Gibson and Glover are so comfortable in their roles that half their scenes almost feel like improvisation, the script is sharp and funny (he only gets a story credit, but some of Shane Black’s dialogue must be in there, surely?), and Richard Donner’s direction feels more assured and dynamic. These are filmmakers showing an audience what they can do rather than giving them what they think they want. Well, up to a point, anyway…

The original never felt the need for cheesy post-homicidal one-liners (“Nailed ‘em both”) or a romantic subplot so perfunctory it feels like it’s been copied and pasted from a different film. Even in this admittedly superior sequel, the tell tale signs of creativity by committee and playing to the crowd are becoming apparent; and while they don’t derail the film by any stretch of the imagination, they’re an ominous sign of things to come for the franchise.

One aspect that epitomises this approach best is the handling of Martin Riggs himself. In a funny way, Lethal Weapon is a film that doesn’t really justify a sequel. The entire narrative thrust revolves around a man who is so consumed by grief that he feels he has nothing to live for. This makes him unpredictable and dangerous, creating tension and conflict when he’s partnered up with an easy-going family man. But by the end of the film Riggs has found something to live for; he’s been accepted by his partner and welcomed into the bosom of his surrogate family. Hell, the film ends with Martin giving away his ‘suicide bullet’ (“Tell him I won’t be needing it anymore”). It’s a compelling and enjoyable character arc, but one that suggests an end to his rather more extreme behaviours.

Yet the writers and producers of the sequel knew that a big part of the success of the original was the partnering of a straight-laced family man with a “crazy sonofabitch”, so Riggs – by necessity – becomes that most tired and less interesting cliché: the reckless, maverick cop. And in doing so he loses something vital: he’s flippant when he used to be laser-focussed, a wise-cracker when he used to be wryly cynical, and a rascal when he used to be a wounded animal.

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It still works of course – the sharp writing and the chemistry of the two leads ensures that – but having so skilfully established the personal trauma that affected his mental state in the first film, it’s a shame to see the character devolve in this way, and it’s the reason the subsequent sequels follow a downwards trajectory. Martin says it himself at the end of the first film: “I’m not crazy”. The writers and producers seemed to forget that. Martin certainly does; he refers to himself as “nuts” or “mad” throughout the sequel. Now I know for a lot of people this is the Martin Riggs they think of when recalling the character, but put side-by-side with his angry, wounded performance in the original, the difference couldn’t be starker.

Of course the film finds an excuse for Martin’s return to ‘lethal weapon’ mode for the final act, and while the contrivance is a little ham-fisted it makes narrative sense that the opening of those old wounds would tip him over to the dark side once again. Arguably, though, this should have happened earlier. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I would have gladly sacrificed the facetious, happy-go-lucky “I’m mad, me” Martin to spend time with a more responsible Riggs trying to get his life back on track. That way, when those nasty South Africans reveal their part in his wife’s death; the contrast would have been much more powerful. As it is, we get a Riggs similar to the one we’ve had throughout the movie; he just talks less and scowls more.

But let’s put that to one side for a moment, because when Riggs isn’t tossing himself out of hotel windows, stalking diplomats and clinging on to fast-moving vehicles, he’s demonstrating why his evolution over the course of the first film hasn’t been completely undermined.

Every scene with Riggs in the Murtaugh family home is a delight. Seeing him fully assimilated into the brood – Trish doing his laundry and sorting his meds, the kids worshiping him like a cool uncle – is made doubly heart-warming when recalling scenes from the first film of him alone, drunk and suicidal in his trailer. Although the standout scene takes place upstairs in the bathroom.

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I could spend paragraphs debating the merit of the bad guys needlessly leaving a tip-off on the toilet paper (Pt. Vasquez didn’t get a note on her diving board; Hank bloody Schrader didn’t get a post-it on the microwave!) but at least it neatly sets up one of the most heartfelt bromantic scenes of any 80s actioner ever – certainly where one party is sitting on a toilet rigged with a pressure-sensitive bomb. The whole sequence is peppered with laughs but the stakes are never diminished, and despite throwing him in harm’s way for most of the film, Riggs’ fierce loyalty to his partner is given a brief moment to shine. It all culminates in possibly the definitive Lethal Weapon moment when they communicate their feelings for each other through awkward yet meaningful glances over the strains of Eric Clapton’s guitar. It’s both sweet and incredibly macho.

Two adjectives, incidentally, that could not be used to describe Leo Getz. How a film like Lethal Weapon 2 manages to introduce a comedy character like Getz and still work is something of a mystery, but I think part of the reason has to do with the fact that our characters find him just as irritating as we do. They’re stuck with him – a babysitting assignment neither of them wants – and as a result they treat him like shit, and we the audience get a little pleasure in seeing our heroes torment him. He gets chucked through a window, his broken nose is tweaked, he gets taken along on dangerous busts, and most conversations end with him being told to “shut the fuck up”.

It’s made abundantly clear: this isn’t a human being they would choose to spend any time with if they had any other choice. In that very specific context, the character just about works, and when they send him on his way near the end of the movie, it’s strongly implied that they have no intention of ever seeing him again. Ha, can you imagine if they became, like, friends or something in the sequels? Boggles the mind…

We need to talk about the baddies.

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I have a sneaking suspicion that with the casting of Joss Ackland the producers were hoping to ‘pull a Die Hard’. While it wasn’t a screen debut as it had been for Alan Rickman the year before (Ackland had already amassed a rich filmography) you can’t help imagine that the filmmakers were hoping for some similar lightning in a bottle when they chose a British theatre thesp for chief villainy duties and asked him to put on an accent. Perhaps it was the decision to make him a racist South African that turned him into a bit of a caricature? Being a murderous drug dealer hiding behind diplomatic immunity is enough for most people to identify him as a wrongun, but making him the personification of apartheid was arguably a step too far. Given that he also pervs over his secretary, executes his employees, and orders the slaughter of an entire team of police detectives, it’s no wonder he ultimately comes off a little cartoonish rather than a real threat.

Incidentally, a cheap and cheerful idea for a gift is a homemade ‘diplomatic immunity kit’ – see example below. For the cost of a cheap plastic wallet and some office printer supplies, you too can bring the joy of yelling “DIP-LO-MATIC IMMUNI-TAAAAY” to a friend or colleague.

As in the first film, the chief henchman is far more memorable. Played by Irish character actor Derrick O’Connor, Pierter Vorstedt has the cruel, quiet efficiency of a corporate killer that is quite the departure from the more militaristic bent of the original’s Mr Joshua; but he’s no less threatening for it. If it were any other film series I’d lament the reveal that he was the killer of Martin’s late wife as post-creative rationalisation of the highest order, but it does serve an important story element here.

It’s not that we, the audience, need a better reason to root for his eventual demise (the usual justification for the ‘villain has personal connection to hero’ trope) more that Riggs needs a good reason to go into full-on death wish mode again, and since the death of his wife led to his psychotic break in the first place, it’s a powerful motive.

Less so, the death of Rika Van Den Haas, who Riggs meets, loves and loses in the course of about a day and a half, and whose presence serves no purpose other than for Patsy Kensit to show off her South African accent and, well, other things.

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Shane Black’s original plan was for Riggs to die in Roger’s arms at the end of the movie, and thematically it makes perfect sense: he had just gone ‘off the reservation’, killing everyone in his path, and ending the life of the man who had caused his own to spiral out of control (am I the only one surprised that he didn’t use his gold pen as a stabbing implement?). He got to enjoy a brief respite from his woes thanks to the man currently cradling him while he bleeds out, but this was simply his time. He couldn’t come back from this latest loss of control, this latest descent into carnage: he was simply a rabid animal about to be put out of his misery. A sad and sombre ending? Sure. A satisfying one?

What’s that? We could do another sequel and make even more money? Righty-ho: change of plan. All the bad guys are dead and so Riggs transforms from ‘lethal weapon’ mode and reverts back to “I’m mad, me” Martin, cracking jokes about quitting smoking and asking Roger to kiss him. Everybody has a hearty laugh (which hurts) and we’ll sort out all the ramifications and paperwork between films.

As far as Lethal Weapon 2 goes, it’s not much of a misstep. It doesn’t spoil what is rightly regarded as one of the better sequels to 80s cop classics, certainly compared with Beverly Hills Cop 2, Another 48 Hours and even Die Hard 2. But it ended Shane Black’s involvement in the series and prevented his original vision for the sequel from being fully realised. And take Shane Black entirely out of the equation and you get… well… Lethal Weapon 3.

And nobody wants that.