The Ridiculously Fast Turnaround Time of Lethal Weapon 4

Warner Bros greenlit Lethal Weapon 4 late in the day - giving director Richard Donner just over six months to make the movie...

The closing chapter of the Lethal Weapon movie saga was a film that, tonally, was a long way away from the movie that started the series.

In the original Lethal Weapon back in 1987, the character of Martin Riggs – as played by Mel Gibson – was on the verge of suicide, working uneasily alongside Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh. By the end of Lethal Weapon 4, as the song “Why Can’t We Be Friends” played out, it was all happy families. With babies. Riggs had a wife and child, any hints of suicide were long gone, and the film feels a lot more like a comedy than an action thriller.

But then Lethal Weapon 4 was a film with very different expectations on it. The original Lethal Weapon was a surprise hit. Lethal Weapon 4, released in late summer 1998, came with a weight of commercial requirements. It was needed, urgently, to dig Warner Bros out of a hole.

The Problem

The film had been in development to varying degrees since the success of Lethal Weapon 3 back in 1992, arguably the film that shifted the tone of the series the most (accepting that Lethal Weapon 2 had the glorious scene with Murtaugh stuck on a toilet with a bomb attached to it). But it suddenly got its green light, in large part because of a gap in the Warner Bros schedule. Lethal Weapon 4 would have happened eventually one way or another, but in an ideal world, it would have taken a little more time to lock things together before cameras started rolling.

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But then Summer 1997 hadn’t been a great one for Warner Bros. Big budget comedy Father’s Day disappointed, Batman & Robin wasn’t the expected tentpole, and Mel Gibson-Julia Roberts vehicle Conspiracy Theory – admittedly a tonally ambitious movie in its own right – hadn’t taken off either.

Only Robert Zemeckis’ Contact gave the studio a ray of light in its otherwise disappointing summer schedule, and the studio’s slate of upcoming costly projects – The Postman, Sphere, and U.S. Marshals (a sort-of sequel to The Fugitive, albeit without Harrison Ford) – wasn’t inspiring too much confidence.

For summer 1998, Warner Bros was hinging its hopes on the Michael Douglas thriller A Perfect Murder, an adaptation of the TV show The Avengers, and the Kevin Spacey-Samuel L Jackson headlined thriller, The Negotiator. It was also pouring money into the big budget Soldier, due later in 1998.

But it needed a safer bet in the midst of its summer schedule. Lethal Weapon 4 suddenly had its greenlight. And the clock was very much ticking.

The problem? The script wasn’t ready, and the decision to push ahead with the project was made relatively late in the day.

Six Months

A few years’ back, director Matthew Vaughn jumped aboard X-Men: First Class roughly a year before that film’s release, working with a team of editors to try and (just about) meet the movie’s planned release date. It’s one of the reasons he skipped making X-Men: Days Of Future Past for Kingsman: The Secret Service. The latter had a less pressing schedule, and afforded Vaughn more control.

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For Richard Donner on Lethal Weapon 4, the schedule was even more contracted. The movie was given a July 1998 release date by Warner Bros, but Donner didn’t actually start physical production until January of that year. January 8th, to be precise.

That’d be tricky but do-able now – a Paranormal Activity film, shooting on digital, could turn things around in a month or two, if pushed. But Lethal Weapon 4 was a big action blockbuster, one with a massive highway chase sequence at the heart of it. Shooting on film, too.

The logistics alone were mind-boggling, especially given the amount of location work required. The film opens in a street scene as a man with a flamethrower wreaks havoc. It involved outdoors shooting (in more than one sense), complex action sequences, and trying to capture the fast movements of Jet Li on film (which sounds like a trivial challenge, but turned out to be anything but). It had Danny Glover stripping down to his undercrackers. These things need proper planning.

To add to the problem, the script was never really finished. The screenplay was ultimately credited to Channing Gibson, with story credit going to Jonathan Lemkin, Alfred Gough, and Miles Millar. But the truth seems to be that there was never really a locked script as such.

Channing Gibson was on hand for duration of the production, and hasty changes were regularly made. The first draft of the screenplay, for instance, didn’t include the returning Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) or the character of Butters, as played by Chris Rock. They both ended up being written into the film, when the availability of both actors was confirmed. Furthermore, the ending hadn’t been written when Donner unpacked his cameras for the first time on the movie. It’s one reason why the ultimate demise of Jet Li’s character feels so weak.

Jeffrey Boam, who co-wrote Lethal Weapon 3, was also involved in a script for the new sequel (coming up with an original draft that ultimately wasn’t used), and would subsequently argue that Lethal Weapon 4‘s central plot of counterfeiting Chinese money was low stakes for a movie of this scale. The A-Team movie, released over a decade later, would centre on a similar idea. Furthermore, it was only after the film got its green light that the Triads were added to the movie.

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It perhaps goes without saying that Lethal Weapon 4 was a frantic shoot, with little in the way of time to waste. But as with most Richard Donner productions, it was seemingly a calmer one than you might think. That said, it still ran things very close to the proverbial finish line.

After all, the final footage was in the can just 33 days before the film’s release date. Given that prints had to be struck and physically distributed (again, digital distribution techniques would have enormously helped), this put an enormous strain on editor Frank J Urioste and his team. Urioste edited the entire movie on an Avid system, the first time he’d ever put together a movie on a digital system in its entirety. In short, he likely had less than four weeks to assemble a finished cut of the film, to Donner’s liking. Granted, editing was ongoing while the film was being shot, but still: it was an exhaustive challenge to get the film done on such a schedule.

The End Result

The final cut of Lethal Weapon 4 is generally regarded as a bit of a jumble, and with good reason. It plays a lot better as an outright comedy than an action film, and given the speed at which it was spliced together, there’s clearly not been a lot of time put into tightening the picture up.

And yet Warner Bros comfortably won its gamble. When Lethal Weapon 4 was released, the reviews were generally quite decent. Few were championing the film as a high point of the series, yet nonetheless, it was an entertaining, almost old-fashioned way to spend two hours in the movies. This was the summer of effects-fest Armageddon, of Spielberg’s raw Saving Private Ryan, and of the prescient The Truman Show. An old-fashioned buddy cop comedy? It was if most of the ’90s hadn’t happened.

But still: Lethal Weapon 4 certainly generates some good laughs, gives Chris Rock space to do his stand-up schtick, and in Jet Li, has a foe who could and should have left Riggs for dead. Even if Li had come up against the don’t-give-a-shit Riggs of the first film, he’d have comfortably emerged victorious. But plausibility has long gone here, and eventually, Riggs emerges as the victor, with he and Murtaugh resuming cop duties.

That’s Hollywood for you, right?

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All said though, Warner Bros got its box office hit, and it really needed it. By the time Lethal Weapon 4 arrived in cinemas, The Postman and Sphere had proven to be major box office disappointments. City Of Angels was a minor surprise hit, whilst A Perfect Murder was doing solid business. Meanwhile, the $20m Casper Van Dien-headlined Tarzan And The Lost City had died a very quick death.

Lethal Weapon 4, though, was the cold, hard hit that the studio needed, generating $285m worldwide at a point where that was considered an awful lot of money. Contrast that with now, where Terminator: Genisys‘ haul is roughly the same amount, and that’s being considered a major disappointment.

Rumors persisted for some time that a Lethal Weapon 5 would eventually follow, and in the mid- to later-2000s it seemed that would be the case. The well-charted career meltdown of Mel Gibson took care of that, though, and if anything, talk has now turned to a reboot.

Which leaves Lethal Weapon 4 as a hasty, but better than it’s given credit for swansong for Riggs and Murtaugh. Unlike the later sequels to the likes of Die Hard, it at least has something in common with its predecessors, and rounds out their character arcs in a manner that you probably wouldn’t have seen coming back in 1987.

For Richard Donner, he wouldn’t see another of his films in cinemas until 2003, when the troubled Timeline finally made it to release. Given his output between 1992 and 1998, where six films he directed got a wide release, he more than likely deserved the rest, though…

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