Lethal Weapon: looking back at the original

The first Lethal Weapon movie remains a flat-out classic. We take a look back at the first meeting of Riggs and Murtaugh...

There’s only ever really been one Lethal Weapon film. The highly entertaining sequel kicked off a brand new trilogy of action comedies that starred the same actors playing the same characters, told what to do by the same director. But the original has something special – something unique that sets it apart.

Put it down to being the one film in the series that benefited from an unmolested Shane Black screenplay. Put it down to a cast and crew firing on all cylinders to make an unknown quantity work. Put it down to the absence of Joe Pesci. Whatever it is, Lethal Weapon has something the follow-ups lack – and it’s not just the sight of Mel Gibson’s bottom.

‘Mismatched partners’ is a movie concept as old as cinema itself: Gillespie & Tibbs; Felix & Oscar; Laurel and Hardy. It was only old-fashioned values that robbed us of the joy of seeing Olly look to camera after one of Stan’s disastrous pratfalls and utter: “I’m too old for this shit”. Lethal Weapon therefore wasn’t breaking new ground with its chalk and Cochise double act, but the specific pairing of a genial mature family man and a tightly coiled loner with a death wish was certainly a twist on a reliable formula.

In most examples of the genre, there’s one party that we, the audience, instinctively side with over the other. Sometimes it’s the uptight numpty with the stick up their ass; sometimes it’s the reasonable guy driven to distraction by their companion’s buffoonery. Lethal Weapon does a neat trick in making you emotionally invest in both Murtaugh and Riggs, which creates genuine intrigue and engagement as the two of them tentatively try to figure out their partnership. Smartly, Roger Murtaugh and his adorable family are introduced first, and Danny Glover imbues his world-weary patriarch with such warmth and geniality you can’t help but root for the guy.

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Random trivia: Roger’s wife is played by Darlene Love – one of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound starlets back in the day – and her rendition of Christmas: Baby Please Come Home opens another festive-themed 80s classic, Gremlins.

The contrast between Murtaugh’s warm and fuzzy bathroom-based birthday celebration and the sorry state in which we find Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs as he stumbles around his junk-strewn trailer couldn’t be starker. And like his soon-to-be partner, Riggs is set up perfectly.

His first appearances suggest he’s simply that most tired of clichés: the maverick cop. Brave but reckless, good at his job, little respect for authority… yawn. But then the film takes something of a left turn: it shows him a hair trigger away from committing suicide. He’s not flirting with a heroic death – running headfirst into a stream of bullets trying to save innocent citizens – he’s alone, drunk, a picture of his dead wife on his lap and a Bugs Bunny cartoon on the telly. Gibson plays it beautifully – the heart-wrenching methodology with which he prepares his gun (suggesting he’s done this many times before) giving way to a torrent of tears and despair when he can’t quite go through with it. It’s heart breaking, and leaves the audience in no doubt: this guy isn’t a ‘maverick’; he’s in a great deal of pain and feels he has very little to live for. Which, considering his line of work and his various ‘talents’ makes him a very dangerous individual to be around.

Ah, yes: his talents. Long before Bryan Mills was intimidating Europeans with his ‘particular set of skills’, Martin Riggs was already taking the biscuit with regard to his death-dealing attributes. In the same way that ‘ex-SAS’ is shorthand for ‘badass muddy-funster’ with British characters, if your all-American hero has a special forces tattoo, then watch out: he can probably kill you with a carefully controlled sneeze.

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But not content with making him a martial arts expert, a mean sprinter, and something of a pain endurance specialist, Lethal Weapon goes so far as to makes Riggs – by his own estimation – one of the top ten marksmen in the entire world! With a cocktail of talents so potent, the audience would normally be desperate to see him cut loose; like waiting for a superhero to show off their powers. But due to the great work of Danny Glover, we’re a little torn – after all, we don’t want to see Roger retire prematurely due to multiple gunshot wounds.

What the audience needs is a villainous conduit; someone for Riggs to rail against who deserves his explosive ire. A bad guy that the film can point him towards and let him rain down glorious, righteous hellfire. Step forward Mr Gary Busey.

In truth, Mr Joshua is little more than a thinly sketched henchman, but what a beautiful sketch! Here is a man who allows his boss to hold a lighter under his forearm to prove a point about loyalty; a man whose preferred method of torture involves a meat hook, running water and electrocution. Here is a man who has the audacity to wear a cream woolly jumper – similar to something your dad might own – during a helicopter-based assassination mission. We don’t know a lot else about him, but we know we’d like him dead.

I’ve exhausted a fair few words without even mentioning the plot, but then that’s not exactly the film’s strongest suit: ex-army guys dealing in heroin, basically. This is a movie built upon set pieces and snappy dialogue rather than a clever or even particularly interesting story. But when you’ve got dialogue written by Shane Black, and set pieces like the famous building jump, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At the end of the day, Lethal Weapon is a film that lives and dies on the chemistry of its two stars, and since every interaction between Riggs and Murtaugh is an absolute joy, the movie soars.

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It’s very much a product of the 80s, but while some of the attitudes on display now seem encouragingly dated (Riggs referring to the notion of two women in bed together as “disgusting”) others remain depressingly contemporary (“Momma says policemen shoot black people. Is that true?”). One aspect that straddles the line between anachronistic and relevant is the central conceit of Riggs’ psychological fragility.

Back in the 80s, Hollywood seemed to go out of its way to classify desperate behaviour brought on by grief and emotional trauma under the convenient catchall of ‘crazy’. Mel Gibson himself was fresh off a trilogy where his understandably visceral reaction to the tragic loss of his family in an apocalyptic wasteland had earned his character a simplistic moniker that questioned his sanity. Had Gladiator been produced in the 80s, the tale of a grieving father and husband out for revenge would no doubt have been titled Mad Maximus.

But whether purposefully or not, Lethal Weapon actually does a great job of showing how mental illness brought on by emotional trauma is a tragically misunderstood and poorly treated phenomenon.

All his colleagues, save for the police psychiatrist, can only conceive of two possible explanations for Riggs’ erratic conduct: he is either faking mental illness so he can retire early on a police ‘psycho pension’, or he has gone ‘crazy’. The terminology itself betrays how woefully ignorant and ill equipped this macho institution is. His own Captain, a character portrayed in an increasingly avuncular manner as the series progresses, dismisses Riggs’ behaviour as something he will “snap out of”, and flippantly notes that his suicide will prove him wrong (this is a man invited to be present for the birth of Riggs’ first child in Lethal Weapon 4!).

When Roger demands to know if Martin has a death wish after his stunt with the jumper, even a heartfelt rant about running out of reasons to live – culminating in a nonchalant suicide attempt – is met with not even an ounce of sympathy. “You really are crazy,” says his unhelpful partner, before letting him wander off for a sandwich. Cheers Rodge!

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It takes Murtaugh the entire film to entertain the seemingly obvious notion that the death or suffering of a loved one to whom you are completely devoted could cause someone to lose meaning in their life, to not care what happens to them, to occasionally explode with violence. And it takes him being strapped to a chair as bad guys literally pour salt into his wounds and threaten his daughter to help him get there. As he spits out his futile threats of killing them, he finally feels the combination of rage and despair that Riggs has been struggling to surpress since the death of his wife.

When Riggs lets Murtaugh in on his little secret at the end of the film – that he’s not crazy – Roger’s response of “I know” is the only time in the entire movie that someone acknowledges Martin’s grief and the painful void his late wife has left in his soul. Those two words reaffirm what Martin probably always knew but never had repeated back to him by an ignorant and uncaring world: he wasn’t experiencing madness, just profound loss. And by welcoming him into his home to experience the world’s lousiest Christmas dinner, Roger coaxes from him the first tentative steps towards filling that void. It’s an understated but beautiful bro-mantic ending. Many films of this ilk are happy to conclude with grudging respect – Lethal Weapon ends with both parties becoming family.

Of note are some of the scenes that didn’t make it into the theatrical release because, unlike the vast majority of deleted scenes, most would have enhanced the movie. Someone obviously agrees, as a few have subsequently been reinserted into some versions, and the ‘director’s cut’ is often the one shown on TV.

Firstly there’s the school sniper scene, which does a far better job of summing up Riggs than his bust at the Christmas tree farm. It shows his lack of respect for authority, the lack of concern for his personal safety, and his awesome marksmanship. Granted, all these things are revealed throughout the film anyway, but this scene sets up the character with admirable efficiency, and it’s a thrilling scene to boot. And it’s surely the incident Roger is referring to when he says “Heard about your little stunt today. Pretty heroic…” because repeatedly pleading with a man in a plaid shirt to shoot you before head butting him and sticking a gun under his chin is many things, but heroic might be stretching it.

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Then there’s the scene where Riggs picks up a prostitute and pays her a hundred bucks to come home and watch television with him. While borderline creepy (“…the younger the better…”) it reinforces the notion that underneath all the ju-jitsu and sharp-shooting, Riggs is a desperately lonely character, which makes his eventual acceptance into the Murtaugh brood all the more pleasing. It also reveals that Riggs’ Three Stooges act at the Christmas tree farm wasn’t completely random – he’s actually a big fan of show. In fact, this becomes one of the more baffling running gags throughout the series.

And so, friends, we reach the end, and I must once again share my utter bewilderment at the film’s reason-defying denouement. I touched upon this briefly in a previous article in which I ranked the Lethal Weapon films in order of merit, but now that I have the space and the opportunity for a more thorough analysis, I really must highlight this oft-ignored lapse of storytelling logic.

In terms of tension-building and action beats, the sequence is spot-on. Having given villainous No. 1 General McAllister a practical demonstration of the dangers of mixing gasoline, heroine, live grenades and naked flames, our initially jubilant heroes are greatly perturbed by the realisation that the recently escaped Mr Joshua knows where Roger’s family live! Tension mounts as they hurriedly drive off towards the Murtaugh homestead to avert disaster.

Cut to Mr Joshua arriving at said destination to coolly execute the two uniformed officers standing guard. He then breaks in and proceeds to shoot the place up with his assault rifle. But just when you fear the worst for whoever may be cowering inside the house, Mr Joshua spies a sarky note on the Christmas tree:

DEAR BAD GUYS. NO ONE HERE BUT US COPS. SORRY. THE GOOD GUYS

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At which point a cop car comes smashing through the living room wall, distracting Joshua long enough for Riggs to get a gun to his head and force him to relinquish his weapon. It’s all been a carefully orchestrated ruse!

Er… a ruse that has resulted in the deaths of two police officers and a shitload of damage to Murtaugh’s house. I take back everything – Riggs is clearly insane.

It’s been put to me that the note may not have been placed by Riggs and Murtaugh but by some other police officers, and that our heroes only arrived after Joshua’s home invasion. On this, I call bullshit! If that were the case, it would suggest that a) someone was expecting some bad guys to show up, in which case why not have more than two woefully under-prepared cops on guard duty, and b) that someone else in the police force just happens to have the same devil-may-care sense of humour as Riggs. Nope, everything points to this simply being the kind of poorly conceived plan that Martin’s heroes The Three Stooges would have been proud to concoct. Its levels of absurdity are only fully appreciated when you consider what must have been going on outside the house in the run up to this final confrontation…

EXT NIGHT: RIGGS AND MURTAUGH ARE HIDING BEHIND A BUSH

“Oh man, he’s gonna be so pissed when he sees the house is empty. And wait until he reads that note!”

“I still think we should just shoot the son of a bitch when he gets here.”

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“Oh come on, Rodge, where’s your sense of humour? Wait, wait – here he comes now. Get down… this is going to be great.”

“He’s talking to the cops on guard duty – we should have warned them!”

“I figured they might not survive. Yup… look. He’s shot them.”

“Riggs, he killed those two poor men! We could have stopped him!”

“Yeah, but this way he still might see my note.”

“Riggs, you can shoot a smiley face into a paper target from the back of the firing range – think you can shoot him in the leg or something before he goes into my house?”

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“I want him… to read… the note!”

“Oh man, he’s shot down my door!”

“Relax, he’s using up all his bullets.”

“We could just shoot him now!!”

“Shhh, Rodge. Let him get to the tree. That’s where I put the note. It’s a great note.”

“Couldn’t you have put it on the front door?”

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“No, no. He needs to be in your lounge. That’s where we’re gonna crash the car.”

“WHAT?!”

“As a distraction. To catch him unawares.”

“Oh man, I can hear him shooting up my house. My beautiful home.”

“Hey Rodge, I wanna use that patrol car. Help me pull out the bodies of those dead cops, will ya?”

“What about the car we came in?”

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“Not as dramatic. Sirens on that one are better.”

“Sorry brothers… You didn’t die in vain.”

“Now go to the window and see where he is. I’m gonna line the car up, jam the gas pedal down.”

“Hey Riggs. He’s reading it! He’s reading your note!”

“Does he look pissed?”

“Oh yeah.”

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