Thanks to the success of 48 Hrs. (1982), the Buddy Action Movie became arguably the most popular genre in the 1980s and it seemed, for a short time, that studios were handing them out to any dramatic actor-comedian combo that wanted one. This resulted in the best of times (Beverly Hills Cop) and the worst of times (City Heat). By the late ‘80s, the formula had gotten stale and in need of an injection of new blood. Along came aspiring screenwriter Shane Black who had written an urban western inspired by Dirty Harry (1971). With Lethal Weapon (1987), he took the Buddy Action Movie to darker places than it had been before by teaming up a veteran cop in the twilight of his career with his new partner, an unhinged, suicidal loose cannon. Needless to say, the end result was explosive and the movie was a massive commercial success, spawning three increasingly inferior sequels and a television show.
Veteran Los Angeles police detective Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is assigned a case involving a coked-up, pill-popping prostitute that took a swan dive off her high-rise apartment building. He becomes personally involved when the dead girl’s father (Tom Atkins) turns out to be an old Vietnam War buddy who tells him that she was murdered and desperately implores his friend to find those responsible and kill them. If that wasn’t hard enough news to take, he’s also been assigned a new partner – Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) – who may or may not have a crazy death wish.
They soon run afoul of retired General Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) who is running a heroin-smuggling operation and employs a team of mercenaries including his fiercesome right-hand man Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), an impeccably dressed individual that pulls a G. Gordon Liddy with an underling’s lighter to show what a badass he is. It’s a nice scene that shows what a serious threat these guys are to our heroes. I like how the film gradually reveals the kind of threat Murtaugh and Riggs are up against and they are people that use deadly force, which tempers the comedy that is sprinkled liberally throughout. Black’s script gets the mix just right – something that subsequent Black-less sequels did not with their increasingly lazy sitcom elements typified by the addition of Joe Pesci’s annoying mugging.
Director Richard Donner immediately shows the contrasting lifestyles of Murtaugh and Riggs with the former a loving family man that lives in the suburbs while the latter starts the day with a cigarette and beer in a trailer with his dog by the beach. Not surprisingly, they also have contrasting approaches to police work and this is memorably illustrated when we see Riggs at work, going undercover to bust a trio of drug dealers at a Christmas tree lot and proceeds to throw them off guard by going all Three Stooges on them in a moment that is hilarious but quickly turns deadly on a dime when one of them pulls a gun. After dispatching a few of them, one of the crooks grabs Riggs and puts a gun to his head. Instead of freaking out or begging for his life, he repeatedly taunts the guy to shoot him, which unnerves the crook so much that Riggs is able to disarm him.
The scene where Murtaugh and Riggs first meet is a memorable one as the former spots the latter taking out his gun, assumes he’s a criminal and charges him only to be taken down very quickly by his new partner. This starts the beginning of a contentious partnership as Riggs tells Murtaugh early on, “Let’s just cut the shit. We both know why I was transferred. Everybody thinks I’m suicidal in which I’m fucked ‘cos nobody wants to work with me. Or, they think I’m faking it, draw a psycho pension in which case I’m fucked and nobody wants to work with me. Basically, I’m fucked.” Not surprisingly, Murtaugh isn’t thrilled to be working with Riggs either and tells him, “God hates me, that’s what it is,” to which his partner replies, “Hate him back. Works for me.”
I like that the film takes the time to establish the volatile relationship between these two men, showing their contrasting styles of police work as evident in a scene where they deal with a guy threatening to jump off a building. Riggs’ solution is certainly a novel if not completely batshit crazy one. This leads to an excellent scene where they have it out and Riggs tells Murtaugh about his suicidal tendencies, which features intense acting from both men. It gives Lethal Weapon an edge as Murtaugh (and us) don’t know what Riggs is going to do next even as the movie goes through the usual Buddy Action Movie beats.
Chemistry is everything with this genre and Gibson and Glover certainly have it and not just in the action scenes but the crucial downtime in-between, like when Murtaugh takes Riggs home to meet his family and afterwards they hash out the case up to that point, which shows them gelling as a team. It is a nice moment between these guys as we get to know them and care about what happens to them. Black’s script tempers this quiet, bonding moment with Riggs’ parting shot before he heads home: “When I was 19, I did a guy in Laos from a thousand yards out. It was a rifle shot in high wind. Maybe eight or even ten guys in the world could’ve made that shot. It’s the only thing I was ever good at.” Gibson delivers this dialogue with just enough matter-of-fact edginess as to give off a chilling vibe.
Riggs is haunted by the death of his wife and in a powerful scene puts a loaded gun in his mouth. The utter sadness and despair Gibson conveys in this scene is powerful and gives his character an added dimension beyond being simply a wild and crazy cop. It also gives us insight into what motivates him. Murtaugh is a police detective celebrating his 50th birthday when we first meet him and is really starting to feel his age thanks to his oldest daughter who has started dating boys, much to his chagrin. Glover does a nice job of juggling his role as beleaguered family man and someone who is becoming increasingly exasperated by the dangerous antics of his new partner.
Lethal Weapon would establish Black’s tried and true motifs that he’s used in most of his movies: a mystery is kickstarted by the death of a prostitute or stripper, which establishes a favorite recurring thematic pre-occupation of innocence lost. In order to solve the murder, an older, burnt-out character partners with a younger, zanier one going up against a villain who is an older, richer white character that employs an impeccably dressed, unfailingly polite sadistic henchman with the story usually taking place during Christmas in Los Angeles.
Ever the consummate professional, Donner’s crisp direction keeps things chugging along with a slick, glossy look that was synonymous with most ‘80s action movies. The action sequences are coherent, we always know where everyone is and they aren’t edited within an inch of their lives. Best of all, he makes sure to spend enough time letting us get to know Murtaugh and Riggs, showing how their partnership develops over time as they learn to trust each other by surviving death-defying situations. The film also isn’t afraid to forego logic and indulge in its Alpha Male reptilian brain at the climax when, despite being surrounded by cops, Riggs decides to have it out with Mr. Joshua for a knock-down, drag-out fight where the cop is finally allowed to let his inner caveman out. And everyone lets these guys do it! It makes no common sense but the film has been building up to this point and we want to see these two guys go at it to see who is the bigger badass.
The commercial success of Lethal Weapon propelled the young Shane Black into the stratosphere and for a short while he became the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. Donner, Gibson and Glover did pretty well for themselves, reteaming for three more sequels – the second of which (1989) was the only one that was any good. None of them have been able to touch the lightning in a bottle that Donner, et al were able to catch with the first movie and for a brief moment it seemed like the Buddy Action Movie was going to be given a new lease on life. After all, Midnight Run came out the next year and was also a breath of fresh air but sadly these two movies were the exception and not the rule for some time to come.