But enough of my fanboy yammering. The question is- how do the films hold up fourteen years after the last installment hit theaters? Of course, the only way to judge is go film by film.
While the films that followed had a lighter touch, the first LETHAL WEAPON is a lean and mean action flick. Written by Shane Black- whose sardonic action scripts had Hollywood by-the-balls in the late eighties/nineties (THE LAST BOY SCOUT is a classic), LETHAL is dark, cop-noir. It opens with the striking image of a drug addled young woman- half naked, leaping out of a high-rise to her grisly death. From there, we cut to scenes establishing the morning routines of our two heroes, contrasting their home lives and styles of work. Our introduction to Murtagh is him being surprised for his fiftieth birthday, while in the tub, by his loving family. Cut to Riggs- who wakes up alone (other than his beloved dog, Sam) with a cigarette in his mouth, and empty beer cans in his bed- in his tiny trailer home. We then see Murtagh, thoroughly and professionally investigating the suicide from the opening scene, learning to his horror that it’s the teenage daughter of a NAM buddy, Michael Huntsaker. Cut to Riggs, across town in the middle of a coke deal- where cowboy Riggs takes out two of them, and is stopped just short of blowing the third guy’s brains out by his backup.
In classic buddy-cop fashion (heck, this is the film that established the formula), this mismatched pair are teamed up, but after a shaky start (including Riggs leaping off a building while handcuffed to a prospective jumper)- the two warm to each other, especially once Murtagh realizes that Riggs is suicidal- thanks to the recent death of his wife. The early scenes depicting Riggs, notably when he tries to off himself in his trailer while watching TV, feature some of the best acting of Mel Gibson’s career, and the three-dimensional way Riggs’ depression is depicted is leagues ahead of anything we get in modern action films (DIE HARD was like this too). The key ingredient that led to these films crossing over beyond action fans has to be the dynamic between Riggs and Murtagh, who virtually makes Riggs a part of his family, and essentially gives him a new lease on life (with Riggs’ laughing for the first time in the series when Rog’s kids do an impromptu rap about how their older sister’s crush on Riggs).
But, LETHAL WEAPON isn’t just a drama, and when the action kicks in, it kicks in HARD. The two learn that the girl’s death is connected to a gang of coke smugglers comprised of ex-special forces vets, led by “General” McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) and his bleach-blonde psycho lapdog, Joshua (Gary Busey- before he became a parody of himself). LETHAL is full of spectacular, old-school action set-pieces, especially once Rog’s daughter is kidnapped. From here, the film is on-fire, with the crazy desert shoot-out (complete with Riggs’ sniper action, helicopters, wrecked cars, etc.), leading to Riggs’ classic encounter with Endo (“hit him again Endo!”) to Riggs freeway chase where Riggs, wielding an AK-47, chases the baddies on foot, to the final “jailhouse rock” fight between Riggs and Joshua. Overall, LETHAL WEAPON is just a perfect action film, and a masterpiece of the genre sharply directed by maestro Richard Donner.
As good as the first film is (and it’s perfect), 2 may even be better. This has always been my favorite of the series, as it was the one that struck the best balance between action and comedy (not too heavy for the first 2/3’s, but then dead-serious in the last 40 min). It also introduced Joe Pesci as Leo Getz to the gang, in a part that really put him on the map in a big way after spending most of the eighties (outside of RAGING BULL) acting in crappy TV shows - before going on to win an Oscar with GOODFELLAS’.
While Shane Black only contributed bits and pieces to the script (it ended up being almost entirely re-written by Jeffrey Boam), once again the story and dialogue are a cut above. The premise, where Riggs and Murtagh are pitted against South African villains with diplomatic immunity- making them above the law, is intriguing. It also comments nicely on what was happening in South Africa at the time, with Apartheid on its last legs around the time this came out.
Meanwhile, the death of Riggs’ wife still casts a dark shadow over the film, when it’s learned that one of the baddies played a big part in her demise. Director Richard Donner keeps the comedy-action balanced beautifully, but once Riggs’ love interest, Rika- played by my childhood crush Patsy Kensit, gets killed (a HUGE surprise in what had previously been a light film)- all bets are off. It all comes together in the final, twenty minute action extravaganza, topped off by a wicked mano-a-mano fight between Riggs and the main henchman, and a crowning moment of badassery by Murtagh. A friggin’ awesome flick.
While not up to the standard of the first two films, LETHAL 3 is still a heck of a lot of fun. While this one probably dips a little too far into the comedy half of the comedy/action formula, it still moves like a freight train. Seeing this in theaters at 10 years old was probably one of the most memorable cinema-going moments of my childhood, and LETHA 3 still has a lot of nostalgia value for me.
On the plus side, this is the film that introduced Rene Russo as Lorna Cole- a truly Riggs-worthy love interest, who’s almost as crazy as Riggs, if not quite. Pesci’s back too- with a bleach blonde rug (he was riding high off GOODFELLAS’ and MY COUSIN VINNY) and lots of funny quips (ok ok ok). The whole plot about Rog shooting a teen gangbanger, and the result rage and guilt elevates the film enough that you can forgive the shortcomings- the most grievous of which is the lack of a good villain (or even a physical foe for Riggs). Still, it’s a damn fun film.
And here’s where the cracks started to show. As the poster tagline says, “the gang’s all here”, but evidently the screenwriters weren’t (the rushed development of the film is examined in detail in a book called “Boffo” by Peter Bart). By shooting without a finished script, LETHAL ends up with a lot of filler- a lot of which is painful. For one thing, there’s at least one too many supporting characters, with Chris Rock’s Butters being tagged on to bring in the teens, even though he has nothing to do (outside a weirdly homophobic subplot about Riggs convincing Rog’s he’s gay). Even worse is the unending barrage of dumb jokes about the Chinese- which seem lifted out of a Charlie Chan film (one character even says “flied lice”).
But, there are some redeeming features. The most obvious one is Jet Li, as the villain, a devious counterfeiter who dabbles in human trafficking. Li’s fight were all choreographed by Cory Yuen (Donner just let them do their thing- and it works), and the final fight which sees Riggs and Murtagh double up on him really cooks.
And here’s where the franchise ends. While it didn’t go out on a high note, the forth film was still a hit- and it’s a shame a better, tighter, fifth installment never got made…
The next two films don't offer much other than trailers and the deleted scenes all of which were on the director's cuts. On LETHAL 4, the popular Pure Lethal documentary - featuring outtakes and gags is present and well-worth watching for Lethal fans (Mel sure was a cut up pre-Oksanna).
The meat of the bonus features is on the bonus disc, in the form of a documentary, We're Too Old For This Shit which reunites Donner, Gibson and Glover, who reminisce about the series from Donner's LA mansion (which was used by a shootout in the first films). They're inter-cut with interviews with Shane Black, former-WB head Mark Canton, Joel Silver (the man), Rene Russo, and a hilarious Chris Rock. The first film is given a comprehensive rundown, while the sequels are more lightly covered. The behind the scenes footage is priceless, and it's nice to see everyone involved still seem to be friends.