When I wrote a retrospective on the Die Hard series for this site, a reader pointed out that it was Lethal Weapon that first paved the way for its success. Indeed, coming out the year before Bruce’s finest hour, Mel’s finest hour introduced the world to a new kind of cop film.
Gone was the serious tone of the Dirty Harry flicks. Gone was the gritty underbelly of the Death Wish series. Here was a film that brilliantly blended the high-budget, high-action ethos of the boys own Indiana Jones-type movie with the broad, chirpy comedy of the likes of Back To The Future and yet could still hold a strong dramatic presence when the time required it.
Director Richard Donner has to take much of the credit for creating a near-perfect film. Donner’s career had hit its golden period by the time Lethal Weapon came about. Superman and The Omen had made him a huge name at the back end of the 1970s, but it’s a film that came out two years previous to Lethal Weapon, The Goonies, whose influence can really be seen.
The Goonies was a fun, outrageous family film that blended comedy and action seamlessly and, perhaps by virtue of coming out so soon after, Lethal Weapon benefits from following a similar approach. Donner clearly understands action set pieces as well as he knows his way around a good one-liner, and this is apparent throughout the film.
Of course, it’s Shane Black’s debut screenplay which brings the characters alive on screen, throwing in acerbic wit and some of the funniest, most memorable lines ever heard in blockbuster movies. Making what in other hands could have been stock cop characters likeable, flawed and funny, Black does this stuff better than anybody, with The Last Boy Scout further proof of his genius. We’ll come to that another time, though.
Back to Lethal Weapon, then. The combination of a superb script and the directing calibre of Donner would bring a big-budget 80s masterpiece that would prove a tough act to follow. And while Donner would try to bring back the magic no less than three more times, he was never going to be able to reprise the same level of excitement that came with this first outing.
You could argue that this is down to Black leaving the field of play for the final two instalments or perhaps it’s just down to lightning never striking twice. Personally, alongside Black’s lack of involvement as the series went on, I like to think it’s simply a case of all the right elements coming together at the right time. For just as Donner was riding the crest of a directorial wave, so its leading star was on unbeatable, career-defining form.
As much as the film depends on the chemistry between the buddy cops, Lethal Weapon will always be most associated with Mel Gibson’s crazed, tortured and frequently outlandish turn as Martin Riggs (a character dripping with sharp edges, that would prove to have been fully blunted by the time the fourth film came around). Here’s your typical homicidal cop who somehow gets the job done better than anyone else, and its so often his wild-eyed, over-the-top bravado that makes Lethal Weapon the joy to watch that is still is today.
Gibson, of course, is perfect for the role. While he had shown that he could do understated and serious in the likes of Gallipoli and Mad Max, he would go on to prove that he was more comfortable playing it up for the camera and playing on his good looks and charm, and Lethal Weapon was his first opportunity to lay it on nice and thick for global cinema audiences. It works a treat, and you must remember that while his perm looks stupid today, that was a good look back then.
Danny Glover has done better work since Lethal Weapon, something I couldn’t say about Gibson, in all good faith. However, none of his films have had the same impact at the box office as the Lethal Weapon series – not even the underrated Predator 2. Something of a respected elder statesman of cinema, it’s a little strange to imagine him playing the sort of role he does here, but it’s a wise decision to place him alongside Gibson, his straight man Murtaugh acting as a foil to the hyper Riggs.
Lethal Weapon would go on to gross over $120 million at the worldwide box office and make a global superstar of Mel Gibson. It would also spawn three sequels, which I’ll be looking at soon. But for now, I take my hat off to what remains one of Hollywood’s very best action-buddy movies.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at Lethal Weapon 2.
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