Lethal Weapon 4: a retrospective

Guy takes a belated look at the fourth (but possibly not final) film in the Lethal Weapon franchise…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Spoilers lie ahead for Lethal Weapons 2 to 4.

By this point, it had become tradition to begin a Lethal Weapon film with an action set piece. The first sequel wisely tied it into the main plot. The third chose instead to riff on the beloved ‘bomb toilet’ scene. The fourth? Well, the fourth nicely distils everything that had gone wrong with the franchise’s take on Riggs into an easily digestible five minutes that leaves you shaking your head and sighing a lot.

Part three had already demonstrated that on-screen chemistry is no substitute for dialogue filled with warmth and wit, and LW4 makes this case abundantly clear in its rain-soaked prologue. They get away with it for at least 30 seconds because you’re too busy trying to process the absence of Mel Gibson’s mullet. I mean, shoulder-length curls and a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up is essentially Riggs’ superhero costume, and to see the short back and sides mere seconds into the running time is like dealing with the death of a beloved character in a pre-credits sequence.

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Given that one of the potentially intriguing plot strands of this film is the notion of Riggs having to ‘grow-up’ and be more responsible, there could have at least been a nice scene where his reckless coiffure is tamed at the barbers (that’s METAPHOR, folks).

But I digress… let’s get back to the pointlessly OTT action prologue that clumsily sets up a few of the film’s plot points.

The image of a man in a welder’s mask with an automatic weapon in one hand and a flame-thrower in the other is actually quite arresting. Ironically, Riggs doesn’t arrest him – he instead turns him into a missile and launches him into an exploding gas station. Yes, the one thing that has stayed unwaveringly consistent throughout all these films is Riggs’ penchant for shooting first and asking questions later. But as had now become standard for a Lethal Weapon film, the wanton death and destruction is all incidental, anyway – it’s just a flashy backdrop in front of which to make some lame jokes and dump some exposition: Martin is going to be a daddy, and Roger is going to be a grand-daddy!

It’s also the first of many opportunities for Riggs to show how cruel, belittling and humiliating he can be towards his so-called friends, putting his partner in life-threatening danger just to amuse himself. Part of me wants to see an alternative cut of this film where Riggs spends the whole running time awkwardly explaining to The Murtaughs how their beloved husband and father was shot and killed because Martin thought it would be funny to send him out of cover in his undies, squawking like a chicken, as a needless distraction.

Yes, somewhere between Lethal Weapons 2 and 3, Martin turned into an insufferable arsehole.

Later in the film he humiliates the police psychiatrist who has looked out for him over the years (like when he was suffering from suicidal post-traumatic stress back in the 80s) reducing her to a hysterical wreck. He betrays the trust of Roger’s daughter concerning the identity of her baby’s father, using the information he’s gleaned to tease and wind up his partner. He also considers it a good thing that Leo – purportedly a friend – might get shot by the man they send him to tail. Mind you, Roger finds that last notion hilarious too – why are they both friends with him again?

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You have been watching…

The no-longer mismatched duo’s inexplicable relationship with Leo is indicative of the wrong turn the franchise took after the first sequel. Lethal Weapons 1 and 2 took place in a heightened reality – a reality peppered with the excesses of 80s action flicks, but a reality nonetheless. Lethal Weapon 4 grafts those action movie sensibilities onto what is now, essentially, a bad sitcom. The script coerces its characters into various situations – regardless of how little sense it makes – in an attempt to wring comedy and (if we’re lucky) a bit of action out of them.

To call it an ‘action-comedy’ – a genre the filmmakers appear to believe they are operating in – is to do a disservice to the many other films that get this balance right. And besides, this isn’t where Lethal Weapon should be ploughing its furrow in the first place, because – prepare to have your minds blown – Lethal Weapon is not an action-comedy.

Seriously, go back and watch the original: it’s a tough and gritty action flick with an undercurrent of Shane Black’s dark wit, but only a buffoon (or the Golden Globes) would describe it using the c-word. Lethal Weapon 2 is arguably funnier than the original, but the humour is still a secondary element and – more importantly – the humour emerges organically from how our heroes respond to the various scenarios that are forced upon them.

The departure of Shane Black before the release of the first sequel and the franchise’s nosedive into a tonal mess is no co-incidence. Among his many skills, Black’s ability to inject wry humour into a scene without diminishing the stakes is sorely missing in subsequent instalments.

Lethal Weapon 4 bends over backwards to create scenarios in which the ‘hilarious’ banter between Riggs and Murtaugh can shine (the aforementioned prologue, a shark in a boat, a laughing gas interrogation scene). But if such scenes only exist to create some yuks, then they better damn sure be funny. Because if they aren’t (and they’re not) your action-comedy simply becomes an emaciated action film padded out with tedious bits. Which, alas, this is.

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Jet… I can almost remember your funny face

Let’s stop this slide into negativity because – for one thing – I need to justify my assertion that this isn’t the worst in the franchise. So let’s shine a light on the movie’s main antagonist. Remember who the main bad guy was in Lethal Weapon 3? Of course you don’t, because even though he was played by the wonderful Stuart Wilson, his character and nefarious plan were eminently forgettable. Lethal Weapon 4, on the other hand, has Jet Li.

Sure, file this under ‘American studio debut for insanely talented martial artist who doesn’t get to show off his full range of insane martial artistry’ (you need a big sticker for that one), but the brief snippets of Wushu we get are eye-popping, and he dominates the screen with a genuinely menacing presence. You just can’t take your eyes off him.

I’d go so far as to call his performance the best in the film, and that’s despite him having hardly any dialogue. He’s the one actor that seems to be treating this enterprise as a proper movie rather than a semi-regular catch-up with old friends. His character’s ultimate intentions – even his position of relative power among the triads – are only slowly revealed during the running time, lending an air of mystery and intrigue, and his unwavering conviction is expressed far more powerfully through his subtly expressive face than the clunky script. And boy, he can move.

His character Ku is also, of course, the ‘lethal weapon’ of the title. It was Riggs in the first and second films – arguably Murtaugh in the third – but here it’s clearly and deservedly the high kicking, bullet dodging, gun dismantling bad guy. The chap who soundly beats our heroes at every turn, even when they gang up on him for the climactic fistfight, and who is only defeated when Murtaugh impales him from behind and Riggs uses a discarded automatic weapon to riddle him with bullets. He doesn’t even ask him to surrender – he just kills him (like I said: an arsehole).

His master plan is also nicely teased out over the course of the film, and the forefathers/four fathers misunderstanding stands out as a clever bit of plot-propulsion among the more clunky contrivances.

Also, Jet, you don’t have a funny face; it was a Wings reference. Please don’t garrotte me with your beads…

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Starring Lance Gilbert as Martin Riggs

I’m trusting IMDb for the above assertion, but he deserves a mention because he’s on-screen nearly as much as Mel Gibson. Seriously, Lethal Weapon 4 displays Face/Off levels of not-giving-two-hootery about disguising their stunt performers. During a chase in Chinatown, I was momentarily baffled regarding who the bloke the camera was following was supposed to be, before realising that despite clearly not being Mel Gibson, it was meant to be Riggs (Gibson evidently deciding that he was too big an actor at this point in his career to sprint).

The action sequences are actually pretty good in this instalment – certainly a cut above the rather generic stunt work in the third – so let’s give Lance Gilbert and his colleagues some credit for that highway chase: I will go so far as to say my pulse actually quickened whist watching him being dragged behind that mobile home surrounded by whizzing traffic.

Of course, that sequence is somewhat undermined by the farcical bit near the end when Riggs and Murtaugh drive their car through the floor of a fully-staffed office during their pursuit – a scene that would be more fitting in a Naked Gun film – highlighting the absurd lengths Lethal Weapon would now go to in order to raise a smile. Speaking of which…

Co-starring Chris Rock as Officer Chris Rock

His character’s actually called Detective Butters, but that’s incidental. I imagine the conversation between the producers went something like this:

“Hey, have you seen that Chris Rock guy? He’s hilarious. We should get him for this film.”

“What character would he play?”

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“It doesn’t matter – another cop, maybe – we just get him to do his thing. I saw him do a great routine about cell phones. So we just get Mel to say something like ‘Hey, how about those cell phones, huh Chris?’ and he’ll just go off and do his thing.”

“That sounds hilarious.”

“Exactly. It will be HILARIOUS.”

“Oh… oh… oh… Then we can get Leo to come in and join him and do the whole ‘They fuck you at the drive-thru’ thing again. But with cell phones.”

“THAT…. would be DOUBLY hilarious.”

“I know, right?”

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“Also, Danny’s character should think he’s got a gay crush on him.”

“Oh man, stop it. I’m literally DYING. This will be SO hilarious…”

Where’s Thomas Crown when you need him?

I need to get back to the positives – my ‘not the worst’ defence is getting shaky. Thankfully I have an ace in the hole: Rene Russo.

Granted she only has about five minutes of screen-time, but she’s pure unadulterated class. Her performance here is arguably more natural and engaging than the slightly stilted ‘tough lady cop’ characterisation from the third film, and she even has the effect of making Riggs seem likable when they’re together, which makes the brevity of her appearances all the more annoying. Any criticisms I have are down to how she’s written: why does she still call the man she loves by his surname? Why does she tolerate the fact that Riggs refuses to move out of his beachside trailer? And is it wise for her to perform kung fu whilst 8.75 months pregnant? Given the amount of physical exertion, smoke-inhalation and near-death stress she experiences just days before giving birth, I’m surprised she gets such a happy ending.

Oh yes, didn’t I mention? Roger’s house is destroyed for the THIRD time in the franchise, this time being literally burnt to the ground. How on Earth do his neighbours put up with him?

Also, since I’m nit picking, Riggs is one of the top ten marksmen in the world by his own estimation, so why the hell does he need laser targeting on his gun? Why does a film that revels in gunplay and fetishizes death-by-bullet contain all those anti-NRA sentiments in the background? Why are racial slurs perfectly fine when directed at bad guys? Does the ultimate success of the ‘will me’ bollocks mean that telepathy and psychic powers are now canon in the Lethal Weapon universe?

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Honestly, this film raises more questions than Blade Runner 2049.

Excess waiver

There’s a seed of a good idea in a plot development that addresses all the chaos and destruction Riggs and Murtaugh have caused over the course of their adventures. Their Civil War moment, if you will…

Captain Murphy (who is played by Richard Donner’s cousin – explaining why I’ve only ever seen him in the Lethal Weapon films, Scrooged and Superman) calls the guys into his office and explains that the police department can’t afford to get new insurance while these two carnage-craving jokers are on the streets. So he promotes them. Twice. Sergeants to Captains in one fell swoop (because there are no Lieutenant positions – or something) to… you know… keep them off the streets.

How will this develop? How will this impact our dynamic duo? What pertinent plot point will revolve around this major development in their lives?

Er… none. Nothing. Nada.

After a few congratulatory backslaps from their colleagues, they never mention it again. They go straight back ONTO THE STREETS to cause chaos and destruction. And at the end of the film, Murphy nonchalantly demotes them back to sergeants again, which – despite an assumed drop in pay and benefits – our guys accept with a sigh and a giggle. You’ve just become a father, Riggs! Think about the impact on your income! A more astute member of the production team might have pointed out this seemingly purposeless story diversion and reasonably asked: “Why exactly are we doing this?��

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Arguably, “we’re doing this” because otherwise there would be nothing for Richard Donner’s cousin to do except show up at the end with some flowers. But it’s indicative of several plot points that are set-up, explored for a nanosecond, and then either forgotten about or given little in the way of pay-off. Lorna casually mentions that Roger might be on the take. Oh, and that she’s reading a cheesy romance novel. A little later, Roger throws around some cash with his kids. Then, halfway through the climactic gunfight, Roger reveals that he’s flush because his wife is that cheesy romance novelist! It is a plot thread so inconsequential, with only a handful of lines devoted to it during the entire running time, that it’s almost distracting.

Then there are the implications of Roger hiding a family of illegal immigrants in his kitchen, the parallels between human trafficking and slavery, Riggs admitting he’s too old for this shit, the aforementioned promotions… all potentially interesting side plots that either go nowhere or are given ludicrously short shrift.

The biggest sin, though, is the way it speeds through what should be the emotional core for what was assumed to be the final film in the franchise: Riggs letting go of his self-destructive past so that he can move forward into a happy, settled future. We could have got something quite touching, there.

Instead we got Leo’s pet frog story…

Froggie seems to be the hardest word

You know… if I was a widower, and I was torn about re-marrying, I might go to the grave of my late spouse and ask for some spiritual guidance. I’d be looking for some sort of sign – an out-of-the-blue intervention that would make it clear that moving on with my life was the right thing to do.

I can only hope that should I ever find myself in that situation, a man I demonstrably hate – a man I have (jokingly?) wished death upon several times – would arrive to tell me that he had been covertly following me and eavesdropping on my private conversation. That he never had any friends, but he did have an unimaginatively named pet frog that he disturbingly kissed, thought might be his mother, and ultimately killed through negligence. That my work colleague and I were his only other friends since that time – despite the appalling way in which we treated him – and that this story was somehow relevant.

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Because that would really give me the impetus to get over my long-standing grief and finally commit… I know it would.

Back in the day – when internet movie scoopage was still in its infancy – an infamous ‘review’ for Lethal Weapon 4 appeared on the Ain’t it Cool website that was purportedly from an audience member of a preview screening, but that was clearly written by a member of the marketing team trying desperately to ‘write normal’ and sound like an enthusiastic fan rather than a PR stooge. The glowing write-up – which read like a primary school child relaying a press release to his friends from memory – highlighted this emotional scene, saying it didn’t leave a dry eye in the house.

To be fair, this turned out to be accurate; because in my house we were in fits of hysterics at this horrifically misjudged attempt at sentimentality – tears were indeed streaming down faces.

What a way to finish a franchise. What a way to undercut the genuine psychological struggle this man had endured (for two films, at least). The only thing that could have soured things further would be – I don’t know – a farcical hospital trolley wedding ceremony followed by the extended cast gathering to spontaneously cry out in unison “we’re family”.

Oh…

Mark Kermode has a theory that the better time the cast and crew have making a movie, the worse it will ultimately turn out. This assertion is lent further credibility by the filmmakers’ choice to turn the end credits into a montage of photos showing all the great times the cast and crew have had over the years. Tellingly, material from the first two movies is mainly limited to moody promotional shots, whereas the smiley, jokey behind-the-scenes snaps tend to be from the last two.

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Why Can’t We Be Friends? plays over the jolly mosaic of memories, reminding the audience that this franchise was only ever about one thing: the titter-worthy bromance between two mis-matched cops and their ker-azy adventures!

The thing is though… it wasn’t – at least not at first. It was a tale of a man on the edge, a man who was trained for war and, after returning home, lost everything that mattered to him. A man that was saved and redeemed by the platonic love of a stranger and his family, but who still had an underlying capacity to explode into violence should the need arise. He was a damaged man – a potentially deadly man – but ultimately he was a good man. And the relationship with his new partner – and the welcoming bosom of his partner’s family – turned him into a hero.

Where did you go to, Martin Riggs? I can only assume you died on that boat at the end of Lethal Weapon 2 (as was originally intended) and replaced with an arsehole.

Maybe that’s why I will always pour the most scorn on Lethal Weapon 3, because that’s the point at which the glibness that infected the franchise really took hold. It was also irreparably conflicted – it strove to retain a bit of the edge from the previous films, but also wanted to add some shtick. Teenage gang members being shot and killed on the streets was married with comedy music cues and silly sketches. It was caught between two worlds and served neither of them particularly well.

Lethal Weapon 4 isn’t a good film, but at least it fully embraces the type of film it wants to be: a chance to spend time with its colourful cast of well-loved characters, have some laughs, experience some thrills, and cheer our heroes through some increasingly ridiculous scenarios.

It’s not a choice that I personally embraced – I would describe Lethal Weapon 4 as a bad feature-length sitcom episode peppered with semi-decent action scenes that is elevated through some top glowering from Jet Li – but at least it’s more comfortable in its skin.