Why Lethal Weapon 3 was a low point for the franchise

Our Lethal Weapon lookbacks continue - but was Lethal Weapon 3 the one that lost what made Riggs and Murtaugh such a comination?

Ever have one of those friends who was an absolute hoot when you were younger, but then kind of went a bit weird and annoying on you? You used to have such a laugh, but now they just reminisce about fun times instead of actually having any. They used to be funny, but now every joke they make seems to fall flat. They used to feel edgy and cool, but now they just come across as crass and patronising. And they keep bringing along their new friend that no one likes and is annoying as hell… and who looks an awful lot like Joe Pesci with a peroxide hairdo.

My friends, what you have just read is actually a deep, complex and very clever analogy. You see, I’m not really writing about old friends… I’m writing about Lethal Weapon. Specifically, I’m writing about Lethal Weapon 3 – the point in the franchise when I started to question if it was worth us remaining friends anymore (please note: I briefly returned to the analogy there, but I will stop now).

No one can deny that the Lethal Weapon franchise is a formidable slice of action cinema, but as with any series of films there must be high points and low points. And, for me at least, Lethal Weapon 3 is arguably the lowest point.

If you will permit me, I would now like to revert to a format much beloved by internet article writers the world over as a vessel through which to express disappointment: the humble list.

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1. Riggs is the wrong kind of crazy

As mentioned in my look back at Lethal Weapon 2, Martin Riggs – played by Mel Gibson – was already drifting into the safe, slightly insulting Hollywood definition of ‘crazy’, but in this film they double down with predictably dire consequences. Gone is the man overwhelmed by profound grief, desperately searching for a reason to get through the day. Absent is the character volatile over his loss, and unpredictably dangerous as a result.

In his place is a reckless dickhead – a man who eats a raw onion to overcome his nicotine cravings because he’s ker-azy. A man who threatens a civilian with his gun for jaywalking because he’s… ha ha, sorry… giggling just thinking about that one… because he’s ‘nuts’. A man who tames a guard dog by panting and eating dog biscuits with it because, you guessed it, he’s a ‘crazy son of a bitch’. Oh please, make it stop…

In the original Lethal Weapon (well, the extended cut anyway) Martin walks calmly and intensely through a schoolyard as a sniper takes pot shots at him, not because he knows he won’t be hit but because he doesn’t care if he dies. And it’s heart breaking. By Lethal Weapon 3 his nihilism has morphed into goofy recklessness. Within the first five minutes he has nearly killed his hetero life partner, endangered countless others, and destroyed an entire building by making an unqualified guess over which bomb wire to cut because… well, I’m mad me, aren’t I?

Riggs was somewhat unique in the first film and his fragile state of mind made for a compelling antihero. But much like when Rambo’s PTSD was put to one side so the sequels could allow him to shoot more things and blow some stuff up, Riggs’ defining and tragic characteristic was dropped and replaced with something far less interesting. He became a maverick cop who doesn’t play by the rules – and Lord knows we had enough of those.

2. Riggs is incredibly selfish

One of the defining characteristics of the franchise is the bromance of its two lead characters. The initial distrust felt by Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) in the first movie gave way to mutual respect and eventual co-dependency. By the second film they’re practically family; Riggs a surrogate uncle to Murtaugh’s three kids. They are there for each other no matter what.

Which makes Riggs’ behaviour towards his partner all the more galling in this third chapter. Aside from the aforementioned endangerment of his fellow sergeant via botched bomb diffusal (what if cutting the wrong wire has resulted in immediate detonation rather than speeding up the timer?) Martin spends an inordinate amount of time trying to talk his partner out of retiring, despite this clearly being a sensible option. His family appear eager for him to give up his dangerous profession, and Riggs himself is witness to his partner’s age becoming a bit of a problem when Rog accidentally fires his sidearm in the police locker room.

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Yet Martin spends the entire film chastising him for his decision. His reason? “We’re partners! What happens to you happens to me. You’re not just retiring you, you’re retiring us!”

What. A. Dick.

The Riggs of the previous films would of course have been sad to see their partnership end, but let’s face it – they’re so embedded in each other’s lives, they’d still be best mates forevs. And Riggs would want his dear friend to be safe and out of danger – free from the increasing possibility of shooting himself in the foot every time he dresses himself at work.

Let’s be clear what’s really motivating this behaviour – the audience and the producers. Riggs is giving voice to the people invested in this lucrative franchise. They don’t want to see this partnership broken up and that’s why Martin is taking this uncharacteristically selfish approach. When Roger meets his smug, smirking partner outside his house at the end of the film, after telling his visibly disappointed family that he’d be putting his life on the line for a little while longer, I wanted him to punch the cocky bastard. It’s a classic example of letting audience expectations – or at least the producers’ assessment of what the audience wants – dictate story at the expense of character. Speaking of which…

3. The gang’s all back!

Remember when Serge, played by the great Bronson Pinchot, appeared in Beverly Hills Cop 3? It made no sense whatsoever; he was an assistant in an art gallery in the first film, but here he popped up as a camp weapons dealer because… because… BECAUSE PEOPLE LIKED HIM IN THAT FIRST FILM, GODAMMIT! And it gave him an excuse to repeat some of those funny lines from the first film too! “Little lemon twist…” Classic! “Akwell Foley” Hilarious!!

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This is a phenomenon I call ‘the gang’s all back syndrome’. It stems from the misguided belief of studio executives that a supporting role or scenario or cameo that goes down well with the audience in one film will enrich and enhance a sequel if it is repeated, no matter how poorly it is shoehorned in. On a base level it works – it’s the joy of recognition common to many TV shows aimed at pre-school children. “I recognise that character from a previous episode! This makes me happy! Said character is saying the same thing they always say. This also makes me happy!”

But it’s a poor stand-in for original content, and is often badly implemented to the point of being distracting rather than entertaining. It also comes close to breaking the fourth wall as we’re constantly reminded about the things that have happened in previous movies – as if those are the only things that have happened in their lives because those were the only ones we, the audience, were party to.

Nevertheless, step forward lady psychiatrist (“Hey, I recognise her from the first two films! My experience of watching this film has been enhanced!”), bomb disposal guy (“He helped out with the bomb under the toilet in Lethal Weapon 2! I’m giddy with recollection!”), and dislocated shoulder (“It serves no plot point this time around, but the familiar ball-out-of-socket shtick is releasing endorphins!”), and… (sigh)…and Leo Getz.

4. Leo Getz

The epitome of ‘gang’s all back’ syndrome, Joe Pesci’s Leo Getz has no logical reason to be in this film at all. Sure, they write in a tenuous connection to the bad guy (he met him at a party with a monkey) but Leo is in no way necessary to the plot. More to the point, his presence makes no sense whatsoever; Lethal Weapon 2 established him as an irritating guy who our leads only spent time with because he was a babysitting assignment forced upon them. And even though they’ve bizarrely invited him into their lives since the events of that last film, they clearly still don’t feel too fondly about him: unless the constant stream of abuse and unwarranted rectal exam is emblematic of friendship in a way that has passed me by.

And if you need further proof that Leo is only here to remind viewers about something they liked in the previous films, then consider his opening scene when he tells the couple interested in buying Roger’s house about all the damage the property has incurred during Riggs’ and Murtaugh’s partnership. (Oh, and just for future reference Leo, the drug dealer didn’t drive into the house – that was the genius plan of your two ‘mates’ to distract him).

Oh and yes, Leo’s a real estate broker now because… HE JUST IS, OK?!

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5. Humour. It is a difficult concept…

I’d never describe Lethal Weapon (the original) as an action-comedy. While you don’t shoot a Shane Black screenplay and not get a bit of mirth with your mayhem, it was more about witty lines and wry smiles than laugh out loud hilarity. The sequel upped the humour substantially and, for the most part, was successful. Lethal Weapon 3? Not so much…

The complete absence of Shane Black’s influence probably goes a long way towards explaining this, but the franchise’s overlords didn’t help themselves by assuming that the chemistry between the two leads could turn absolutely anything in the script into comedy gold. The opening car chase in Lethal Weapon 2, for example, is absolute joy because the dialogue is as good as the delivery; Lethal Weapon 3 struggles noticeably in comparison.

Take the entirely pointless scene in which Martin gets Roger to inadvertently kick over a water cooler and embarrass himself in front of the precinct. Firstly: another example of Riggs being a dick, but secondly: not particularly funny. Which would be fine if it was just a small aside or furthered the plot somehow, but it doesn’t. It appears to be there purely to introduce some levity at a time when the story has taken a darker turn (Roger’s just shot a teenager – we’ll get to that…). So if you’re using 5 minutes of screen time for no other reason than to tell a gag, it better be a standout moment. Don’t just have Mel Gibson crack up unconvincingly at the outcome to fool us into thinking it’s a hoot.

The real problem, though, is that the humour in the previous two films always felt natural and unforced – a glib line, a cynical reaction, or a joke between friends. In Lethal Weapon 3 a rotund security guard tries to seduce Roger during a high-speed pursuit and then bursts into song for no other reason than she’s Broadway singer Delores Hall. If I sigh any more, I’ll pass out…

5. “I killed that boy”

Lethal Weapon 3 nearly did something pretty amazing.

Action cinema in the 80s and 90s featured heroes killing a lot of people – predominantly bad guys, but people nonetheless. At one point late in the movie, Roger kills another one, but this one he recognises. He starts losing it as it dawns on him that his latest victim is a friend of his teenage son. He’s just a baby! Riggs is initially bewildered by his partner’s panic – understandably since between them they’ve massacred several dozen perps in the line of duty – but Roger is inconsolable.

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You fleetingly wonder if the film is going to do something pretty brave for a movie of its type: by putting a name and a young face to one of the disposable bad guys that action heroes slaughter so indiscriminately, is the Lethal Weapon franchise about to question the merits of such a homicidal response to crime?

No. No it isn’t.

Roger quickly realises that it wasn’t his fault the lad got shot, or even the boy’s fault. No, it was the people who put the gun in his hand. And there’s only one way to deal with people who do things like that. And that’s to shoot them and their employees multiple times.

Roger comes to this epiphany while drunk on his boat. Riggs comes to visit him – not because he’s worried about his friend’s traumatic experience, but because his daughter asked him to – and they have a nice chat. It starts off about the shooting, but then Riggs interrupts his crying, grieving partner and yells at him for selfishly wanting to retire (seriously, what a dick). The next day he teams up with Riggs and Riggs’ new girlfriend and threatens a bunch of people with a machine gun, and then watches on as Rene Russo’s Sergeant Cole beats the snot out of some guys because they had the temerity to ask if she had a search warrant. He then ends the film by helping them kill a lot of people at a construction site.

So the moral of the story is: killing an armed criminal you have a tangential connection to is bad, but killing the criminals who supplied his weapon will make it ok in the end. Or something.

6. Officer Deadmeat

I have to keep reminding myself that this plot strand isn’t in the Loaded Weapon 1 spoof, but Lethal Weapon 3 actually introduces a young naïve cop for all of two seconds, tells us it’s his birthday today, has our heroes warn him to keep his head down, and then kills him so Murtaugh can get weepy over his demise (“Another baby…”). He is never mentioned again.

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7. The promise

Let’s conclude by remembering what the film got right.

Rene Russo’s Lorna Cole was a refreshingly capable romantic interest: expert martial artist, a verbal match for Riggs, and a competent police officer. It’s a shame she has to get shot at the end to fuel 30 seconds of ‘lethal weapon mode’ in Riggs, but at least she was sensible enough to wear two vests to protect against the armour-piercing bullets (the ballistic science seems a bit dodgy to me considering those bullets tore through a bulldozer blade and an oil barrel, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt).

There are also some lovely lines nestled in the dialogue – some of which were provided by Carrie Fisher’s famed script doctoring – and the Clapton-infused soundtrack remains moodily cool despite the added injection of Sting.

And even though he behaves appallingly for much of the run time, you can’t deny the easy charm and chemistry that Riggs shares with Murtaugh – Gibson and Glover really did have that routine down pat.

So when all’s said and done, is this the worst of the four films? I’d have to say for me it probably is. Lethal Weapon 4 certainly has its issues, but at least it has a memorable villain in Jet Li. The big bad in Lethal Weapon 3 doesn’t even get a mention in its own retrospective…