Lethal Weapon: Ranking the Movies From Worst to Best

We rank the Lethal Weapon movie franchise... Eenie, Meenie, Miney... Hey, Moe!

Well, what do you wanna hear, man? Do you wanna hear that sometimes I think about writing a Lethal Weapon retrospective? Well, I do! I’ve even got a special notebook for the occasion, filled with hollow points… Do the job right! Every single day, I wake up and I think of a reason not to do it, every… single… day. And you know why I don’t do it? This is gonna make you laugh The job. Doing the job. (No really, I have a full-time job at the moment – it takes up the majority of my time.)

So. The Lethal Weapon franchise. Martin Riggs, Roger Murtaugh, and a lot of dead bad guys. Given the body count these chaps tallied, I’m amazed they got through four films without someone looking into their particular brand of police detective work. I mean, you have to go through a review or something when you shoot just one suspect, don’t you? I can only imagine that the periods between films were filled with lengthy court proceedings and internal inquiries. No wonder they stayed sergeants for so long.

The franchise at least deserves kudos for refusing to feature an English baddie in any of the four movies. At a time when the majority of action films were using our clear and pleasant enunciation as shorthand for villainy, I always respected it for that. Gibson, of course, redressed the balance by kicking the shit out of the English in Braveheart and then The Patriot. Thanks, Mel.

But back to Lethal Weapon. Which one is the best and which one, in this writer’s humble opinion, is the worst? Eeeny, meeny, miney… Hey, Moe! 

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4. Lethal Weapon 3

The third in the franchise is the one I’ve probably watched the most, mainly due to its certification (the first to get a 15 rating in the UK, and thus, the first I was able to see at the cinema and subsequently buy on video). Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt, because it’s also my least favorite.

Poor writing is the chief complaint. Shane Black had long abandoned/been pushed out of the franchise, and his absence is painfully evident. The dialogue by new chief wordsmith, the late Jeffrey Boam, attempts to reproduce Black’s trademark rapid-fire banter, but speed of delivery can’t hide inanity, and the actors’ doubtless chemistry is a poor substitute for wit. Indeed, some of Riggs and Murtaugh’s exchanges border on the irritating – and that’s without Joe Pesci making his unwelcome reappearances.

Leo Getz was always meant to be an annoying ass, but in Lethal Weapon 2, he was forced upon our heroes, and we sympathized with Riggs and Murtaugh as they tried to keep this asshole safe while resisting the urge to kill him themselves. By Lethal Weapon 3, they’ve willingly invited him into their lives, so every annoyance and irritation he causes is self-inflicted. If your feelings for a guy are such that you’d surreptitiously arrange for him to receive an unneeded rectal exam, then hey… don’t return his calls!

But of course, the reason for Leo’s continued presence isn’t due to character development or story considerations. It’s down to the writers and producers falling into a classic franchise trap: An acute case of “the gang’s all back” syndrome. (Note to franchise overlords: Repeating gags and relentlessly referencing previous films is not the same as continuity; it’s the movie equivalent of a sitcom character arriving onto the set and the audience clapping and whooping while the actor smugly stands there.)

Lethal Weapon 3 is constantly nudging you to remember characters and highlights from previous adventures when it would have been better off creating a more memorable chapter in its own right. I don’t need a character reminding me about the bomb under the toilet or the drug dealer shooting up the house or “that nail-gun incident,” or Leo going on a “they fuck you at the hospital” rant because he did a similar thing in the second one. All it succeeds in doing is calling to mind unfavourable comparisons instead of progressing the story with which we’re currently supposed to be engaged.

Ah yes, the “story.” People always seem to recall that Roger was on the brink of collecting his pension in all the Lethal Weapon films – it’s become something of a cliché – but it’s actually only Lethal Weapon 3 where his retirement is anything approaching imminent, although it does form one of the film’s main plot strands. I say ‘one of,’ as Lethal Weapon 3 has enough plot strands to weave into a plot rope – although this rope would be a terrible rope, as the constituent strands are short and weak and don’t go anywhere. We have a mangled mess of a narrative that features Roger’s countdown to retirement, armor-piercing bullets, Riggs falling for a kung fu lady cop (Rene Russo), Roger shooting the teenage friend of his son, an evil ex-cop property developer, our heroes blowing up a building and getting demoted… It’s less of a story and more of a random sequence of contrivances.

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Watch Lethal Weapon 3 on Amazon

The characterization is all over the place too. In the first film, Riggs had a grief-induced death wish, which explained his erratic behavior. Here, he’s just a bit of a reckless dick, endangering more people than he saves and all with a goofy “I’m mad, me” look of self-satisfaction on his face. His response to Roger tragically killing his son’s friend is so out of character that it’s particularly jarring: He basically ignores him for a few days to go on an adventure with (and then bedding) Russo’s Sgt. Cole. He only goes to check up on him when Roger’s daughter asks him to, and then halfway through Roger’s anguished outpouring of emotion over the shooting, he has the gall to yell at his partner that he’s being selfish for retiring. You, Martin Riggs, are an asshole.

I’ve hardly even mentioned the main bad guy yet, and that’s probably because despite having seen it a billion times, I keep forgetting that Stuart Wilson is in it. He’s a great actor, and he’s got a brilliant rat-weasel laugh, but a memorable villain he is not.

Perhaps its greatest sin, however, is that Lethal Weapon 3 seems to forget that Riggs is essentially a superhero with a gun, able to dispatch henchmen with an almost Hawkeye level of accuracy. In all the other films, his marksmanship is given the chance to shine, but in this film he empties dozens and dozens of clips without seemingly hitting anything. The action set pieces in general are rather flat and uninspired – Riggs turning a leaky gas tanker into a mobile bomb being the only thing approaching “memorable.”

Can I think of some nice things to say? Well it’s got Rene Russo in it, and Rene Russo automatically makes anything 14.5 percent better. And the villain’s second-in-command looks a lot like darts legend Martin “Wolfie'” Adams (it’s not him – I checked the cast list). But I’m reaching here.

It’s a real shame, because the notion of how a twitchy cop like Riggs would cope knowing he was about to lose the stability of a partner like Murtaugh is a great hook for a third story, and a natural progression of all that had gone before. But that potential was squandered. All we got was that one great line – “I’ve got three beautiful kids, I love ‘em, and they’re yours” – which had the misfortune to appear during Riggs’ aforementioned guilt-trip tirade.

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At least this is the only Lethal Weapon film where Roger’s house isn’t seriously damaged or destroyed by bombs, fire, cars, or multiple home-invaders.

Seriously Rodge, invest in a burglar alarm.

3. Lethal Weapon 4

For a long while, it looked as if the last time we would see Mel Gibson and Danny Glover exchange meaningful looks to the strains of Eric Clapton’s guitar was an in-joke in Maverick. But then they went and made Lethal Weapon 4. By the time the final installment had arrived, everyone involved seemed to have embraced the fact that the series has essentially turned into a feature-length sitcom with guns, casual violence, and guest appearances from Richard Donner’s extended family.

Like the previous film, there was a seed of a good idea here: Could Riggs move past the death of his first wife and stop acting like a reckless jerk long enough to settle down and start a quieter life with a woman still able to karate kick whilst nine months pregnant? Alas, like the previous film, this thought was given short shrift to make way for more Joe Pesci, more misfiring gags, and a bit of “razy lacism” (Riggs loves making fun of the villains’ silly accents).

There’s the execrable “will me” stuff that probably sounded great in the screenwriter’s head but sounds unnatural and forced when spoken out loud; each scene featuring Chris Rock descends into half-ass stand-up (he makes for the least convincing cop since Heather Locklear); and there’s that wince-inducing scene near the end when Leo tells a nonsensical story about a pet frog that I think is meant to be touching, but comes off as creepy and weird.

I won’t talk about the hair. We never talk about the hair. Although we do mourn it.

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So why isn’t it at the bottom of the list?

Well the action sequences are arguably better; cars in this film have a worrying propensity to explode into a giant fireball when exposed to the slightest trauma, which makes for some visually exciting set-pieces.

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Riggs gets his superpowers back, shooting gas valves, sailors, and Triads with trademark precision (although the reasoning behind one of the finest marksmen on the force wanting a laser sight on his new gun is never adequately addressed).

But the best thing the film has going for it, and the thing that narrowly gets it ahead of the third chapter, is a truly formidable villain. Played by Jet Li in his American movie debut, he oozes stoic menace and shows off enough deadly martial arts magic to make him Lethal Weapon’s second most fearsome adversary (sorry Jet, but no one out-Buseys Busey). It felt like a long time since anyone in the series had embodied the title – clearly, Riggs with his short back ‘n’ sides and impending fatherhood was long past it – but Li was very much a lethal weapon.

Also the scene where Riggs is friendly and charming to the Rabbi proves Mel Gibson really is a great actor. 

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2. Lethal Weapon 2

Considering the success of the original, a sequel was a no-brainer for Warner Bros. However, the first film ended with Riggs admitting he wasn’t crazy and apparently starting to come to terms with the loss of his wife. If there’s no longer a crazy chalk to Murtaugh’s careful cheese, how do you recreate the winning formula of the first film?

The answer was to retain Riggs’ inclination for reckless behavior, but this time put it down to a character trait rather than something as deep and meaningful as grief and loss. As a result, he became more of an archetypical ‘loose cannon’ rather than the wounded, more interesting character of the original. Yet the nudge from suicidal to reckless was far more successful here than in subsequent chapters, in part because the film gave him an excuse to revert to “death wish mode” in the final act, but mainly because the interplay between our two heroes remained a joy.

The tag line for Lethal Weapon 2 was “The magic is back,” which shorn of context seems an absurd way to describe an action thriller about two cops. But “magic” was a term often repeated in reviews of the first film when describing the chemistry our leads had, and the sequel wisely leveraged this. Nothing highlights this more than the opening car chase, which contains little in the way of memorable stunts but an abundance of mirth-inducing bickering and banter.

Shane Black’s original screenplay was bastardized, but the remnants of his cracking dialogue remain; Lethal Weapon 2 is hands-down the funniest of the four films. Black knew how to write the exchanges between Riggs and Murtaugh in a way that his successors could never quite grasp, and while his original vision for the sequel (including Riggs’ ultimate demise) never made it to screen, his realization of a cantankerous relationship built on genuine affection and dependency survived.

The sequel also had some cracking boo-hiss villains: Drug-selling, wife-murdering, cop-killing, diplomatically immune, apartheid-era racist South Africans. Tying their odious dealings with the murder of Riggs’ wife seemed a bit of a stretch (and what kind of terrible hit man fails to check who’s driving the car he’s running off the road?) but there can’t be many bad guys more deserving of being “de-kaffir-nated” (I see what you were trying there, Rog, but it still doesn’t make any sense).

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The cop-killing, with hindsight, is particularly galling given that Riggs and Murtaugh’s team of detectives is made up of some notable genre icons: Vasquez from Aliens; Hank from Breaking Bad, Agent Johnson (no relation) from Die Hard… A couple of sequels featuring these guys instead of Chris bloody Rock would have been a much more appealing prospect.

For some, Lethal Weapon 2 is a superior film to the original, and I can understand why. The sequel ups the action quotient, with Riggs’ penchant for clambering over vehicles (both stationary and moving) given continued prominence. The bomb under the toilet sequence is great, even if it did set a precedent for set-pieces that diminished in quality as the series progressed. It’s occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, but gets its yucks without trying too hard. And I challenge any fan of the original not to feel warm and fuzzy at seeing Riggs fully assimilated into the Murtaugh brood. Even Leo isn’t half as annoying here, mainly because he’s supposed to be an irritant–a fly in the ointment hindering our heroes from doing their duty. The fact that he’s kidnapped, tied to a chair and beaten to within an inch of his life near the end of the film makes his eagerness to get involved in Riggs and Murtaugh’s subsequent adventures all the more baffling.

For me though, the joy of the original was seeing a trained killer with nothing to lose transform into a hero with something to fight for. Starved of a good reason to be so blasé about his self-preservation until the final act, Riggs became just another snarky maverick cop with a long-suffering partner.

But what a great partnership it was. Lethal Weapon 2 gets it right in so many ways that it’s rightly regarded as one of the 1980s’ very best cop thrillers–and that’s despite it featuring Patsy Kensit, who does not give her finest performance here. 

1. Lethal Weapon

There have always been buddy cop films of course, just as there have been slasher films before Halloween and claustrophobic action films before Die Hard. But like those seminal movies, Lethal Weapon both distilled what had worked for its forebears while tweaking the formula in a way that other cop-based actioners would slavishly try to imitate. You can hardly accuse Lethal Weapon of being clichéd when it established most of the oft-repeated conventions itself.

What gives the film an edge over movies of a similar ilk – and its eventual sequels – is the focus on an unpredictable and wounded protagonist. Martin Riggs would eventually become “crazy” in the safe, slightly insulting movie sense: Reckless and carefree… The kind of crazy where you’d shake your head about with a chuckle over his “antics.” However, in the original film, Riggs was genuinely dangerous because you absolutely believed he had nothing to live for and therefore nothing to lose. The scene where he contemplates eating a bullet in his trailer remains powerful stuff to this day.

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It’s also utterly essential in letting the audience see that for all his colleagues’ dismissive labels and complete lack of empathy or understanding, this is a man suffering from profound loss, trying desperately to find a reason to stay on the planet. That this man is also a special forces-trained killing machine does not bode well for those around him, and the film expertly plays on this tension by pairing him up with a likeable family man. As much as we want to see Riggs let loose, we also want to see Murtaugh get through the film unscathed.

The obvious solution was to set up some despicable bad guys for Riggs to rail against in the final act. Gen. McAllister isn’t the most memorable of villains, but was there a better ’80s henchman than Mr. Joshua? It’s actually a remarkably restrained performance from Gary Busey, which considering all the car-shooting, forearm burning, electro-torture shenanigans he gets up to, says quite a bit about his future performances.

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Lethal Weapon wisely keeps its powder dry for the majority of its running time. For the first two acts, it’s very much a procedural thriller with some witty dialogue. Sure, Riggs gets to jump off a building and shoot a few perps, but the kind of high-octane action many people associate with the franchise doesn’t really kick in until the home stretch, at which point the film gives us exactly what we want: A rabid and shirtless Riggs going medieval on the bad guys and clambering over traffic with a machine gun. But vitally, it’s with a purpose – something that Riggs spends the majority of the film desperately lacking and that we, the audience, are rooting for him to find.

That’s why the relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh is so special. As much as Roger needed Martin’s particular set of skills to rescue him and his daughter, Martin needed Roger even more. It’s the trust his partner places in him and the welcoming bosom of Roger’s family that gives Riggs a reason to move on and embrace life. When Martin turns up at the Murtaugh’s home in the film’s final moments to deliver his gift-wrapped hollow-point bullet, he might as well be getting down on one knee and offering an engagement ring. They saved each other – they’re partners for life. It’s the best possible ending for the best film in the series.

However, an appraisal of Lethal Weapon wouldn’t be complete without bringing attention to what is quite possibly one of the worst conceived plans ever committed to celluloid. Senses perhaps dulled by the inhalation of too much heroin following McAllister’s explosive death, Roger realizes that Mr. Joshua knows where he lives! How do our heroes concoct to trap this maniacal killing machine using this knowledge? Well, they get to Roger’s house first, stick a snarky “no one here but us cops” message to the Christmas tree, then lie in wait – no doubt snickering like schoolboys – until Mr. Joshua arrives and casually offs two poor patrol guys. Oops! They then wait for him to enter the Murtaugh homestead, let him shoot up the place with a machine gun, and decide that the best way to apprehend him is by SENDING AN UNMANNED COP CAR INTO THE LIVING ROOM!

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Couldn’t they have just snuck up behind him as he entered the front door?