Lethal Weapon (1987)

The "buddy cop" genre is another one of those styles of movies that is practically gone now, but in many ways reflects a certain period in time.  Certainly these types of movies didn't just pop up in the 1980s - many of the Dirty Harry movies fit perfectly in the genre - but so many of them came out at one time due to the success of movies like Lethal Weapon.  I had forgotten how many scenes and lines in this movie have been copied over and over throughout the decades afterward.

The success of Lethal Weapon was certainly a surprise, as Warner Bros. dumped it in theaters ahead of the summer blockbuster season, but good word of mouth helped get it noticed.  Danny Glover had recently come out of a major role in The Color Purple, while Mel Gibson was enjoying international success on the back of Mad Max Beyond ThunderDome and was looking for a way to break into the mainstream American market.  While he turned down John McLane in Die Hard, he found a home in Lethal Weapon and its sequels. 

It is Detective Roger Murtaugh's (Glover) 50th birthday, but unfortunately that doesn't mean crime in Los Angeles takes a break for him.  A young woman Amanda Hunsaker (Jackie Swanson) jumps from a high rise, but it is soon found that she had been poisoned and would have died if not committing suicide.  Amanda happens to be the daughter of one of Murtaugh's war buddies, Michael Hunsaker (Tom Atkins), who is now a successful banker.  Joining him in the investigation into Amanda's death is a detective from the narcotics division name Martin Riggs (Gibson), who is known for his unorthodox methods and whom many in the department think might be suicidal.

At first the two don't get along, but they soon form a bond over their experiences in Vietnam and their devotion to their job.  It soon turns out that those behind Amanda's death happen to be mercenaries, lead by a man named Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), and in the employ of a former general (Mitchell Ryan) who is now the head of a drug smuggling operation.  Attempts to follow leads result in a number of deaths, as well as Riggs and Murtaugh - and Murtaugh's family - becoming targets of the organization. 

At the time this came out there was no question about Danny Glover's acting credentials.  What most people didn't expect was Mel Gibson to have both dramatic and comic timing.  While Mad Max 2 had introduced him in the U.S. by repeatedly showing up on cable (as The Road Warrior), Gibson had already proven himself a solid actor in Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously.  Unfortunately, since they were major productions revolving around events that were not readily known in America, the acclaim in the United States was limited in large part to critics.  Martin Riggs is a troubled character and, for an '80s action movie, a detailed and complicated one.  Gibson pulls it off wonderfully, injecting humor where it needs to be as well as pathos without overacting the part. 

While Gary Busey makes an imposing figure as Mr. Joshua, the main villain, played by Mitchell Ryan, is quite underdeveloped.  This is one of the times when the later villains, the racist South Africans in the first sequel, are much more memorable than in the original.  Surprisingly, this is one of those rare action films from the time that doesn't start to unravel in the last act.  There is a silly scene where Riggs physically fights Mr. Joshua in full view of a number of Los Angeles police officers and as well as Murtaugh's neighbors, but it is still a fun scene to watch.  While there are many memorable scenes at the beginning, from the opening drug bust to Riggs "helping" a potential jumper, the last third of the film really takes off and makes the whole thing.  

Many of those scenes have become staples in the genre.  I forgot that this was the first movie where I saw the beginning jump with a landing on a car roof, something that has been repeated numerous times and often parodied on South Park.  There's the banter, the attempts at one-upmanship as well as Murtaugh's repeated lament that he is "too old for this shit."  It has been a long while since I revisited this movie, and long enough to forget that many of the similar movies after this were lazy rewrites. 

Of course, without the chemistry between Glover and Gibson, both of whom trained and rehearsed prior to making the movie so they could get the comradery down, Lethal Weapon would never have been as memorable.  These are characters one starts to care about and not just caricatures.  Shane Black's original script may have been a bit darker, but director Richard Donner was right in having Jeffrey Boam go over it and inject humor here and there, as it helps bring out different sides of both of the men.  It is also what helped carry the series a lot further than one would have expected.

Lethal Weapon (1987)
Time: 109 minutes
Starring: Danny Glover, Mel Gibson, Gary Busey, Mitchell Ryan
Director: Richard Donner 



Popular posts from this blog

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)