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Lethal Weapon

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Lethal Weapon

Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover
Director: Richard Donner
Rated: R
RunTime: 109 Minutes
Release Date: March 1987
Genres: Action, Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Gary Busey, Mitchell Ryan, Tom Atkins, Darlene Love, Traci Wolfe

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

The author of this review didn't need advice of Wes Craven to build opinion about movie sequels. Together with remakes, now extremely popular among big studio executives, sequels represent the embodiment of Hollywood's creative bankruptcy. I became aware of that almost decade and half ago, when the inevitable comparisons between sequels and original films began giving disappointing results. To make thing even worse, bad quality of sequels even managed to change the initial good impressions of originals. Such thing almost happened to LETHAL WEAPON, one of the most successful movie franchises in modern Hollywood. The slide of quality in sequels wasn't that severe, but the change of character was. While the last film in the series represents one of the purest examples of action comedy genre and "high concept", the 1987 original, directed by Richard Donner, was made as deadly serious police film.

The plot, based on the screenplay by Shane Black, is set in Los Angeles during Christmas. Roger Murtaugh (played by Danny Glover) is black LAPD homicide detective who has just turned 50 and has every reason to be proud of his life achievements - perfect service record, nice family and suburban home that is embodiment of American dream. Martin Riggs (played by Mel Gibson) is white LAPD narcotics detective who became expert in marksmanship and martial arts while serving in Special Forces during Vietnam War; recent death of beloved wife, on the other hand, made him emotionally unstable and nearly suicidal so nobody wants to work with him. Murtaugh reluctantly becomes his partner and two policemen, who don't have anything in common except Vietnam War record, starts investigating suicide of high-class prostitute. The case stops being routine when it turns out that the prostitute happened to be daughter of Michael Hunsaker (played by Tom Atkins), rich banker and Murtaugh's war buddy. Hunsaker hints that his daughter's was actually murdered in order to stop him from spilling beans about large and sinister conspiracy. His words are taken seriously when everyone connected with the case, including him, starts getting killed by expert assassins. Murtaugh and Riggs continue with the investigation that would lead them towards "Shadow Company", group of former CIA agents and mercenaries led by General McAllister (played by Mitchell Ryan). In the meantime, Riggs himself becomes assassin's target and Murtaugh's daughter Rianne (played by Traci Wolfe) gets kidnapped.

First viewing of LETHAL WEAPON was more than pleasant surprise to me. On the surface, the script contains enough cliches to make this film indistinguishable from multitude of 1980s action romps featuring Vietnam veterans and their deadly skills being used on hordes of evil drug dealers in three-piece suits. But LETHAL WEAPON looks different from an average film of such kind, thanks to the very good direction by Richard Donner. This director never belonged to the major league of Hollywood filmmakers, but his reputation of reliable craftsman is well deserved, since he always succeeds in turning his mega-budgets into pleasant viewing experiences. In case of LETHAL WEAPON, big budget became evident in a series of elaborate and spectacular action scenes (stuntman died during filming one of them). But the spectacle comes second to the well-created atmosphere of the film and Donner's clever use of sharp contrasts - Murtaugh's suburban idyll vs. Riggs' living in cheap trailer, glamorous lifestyle vs. corruption and depravity. But the sharpest contrast is provided by combined forces of Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen whose musical score confronts spirit of Christmas with atmosphere filled with loneliness, tragedy and death.

Actually, action scenes, no matter how spectacular they are, come second to the atmosphere of the film. But the most memorable things about LETHAL WEAPON are its two leading characters. What differentiates remarkable action films from simple action films are the protagonists we care for, and Shane Black did wonderful job in providing that by writing Murtaugh and Riggs. Actors playing them did even more remarkable job. Danny Glover is simply excellent as policeman who embodies American middle-class ideals - successful career, material wealth, loving family - and his insistence on police procedure and reluctance to shoot first and ask questions later - qualities usually associated with hero's monkey-wrenching superior in average police movies - become quite understandable. But Murtaugh hides skeletons in his closet - his painful and (presumably violent) Vietnam past is well hidden from his family, and when his family becomes endangered Murtaugh gets as irrational as Riggs. Mel Gibson, on the other hand, embraced Riggs as opportunity to play character very different from the one that made him famous in MAD MAX series. Unlike the deadly but cool Road Warrior, Riggs is initially presented as "damaged goods" and he stays that way until the last shot. We are glad that the person with such skills is employed on the side of Good, but few of us would like to be in his company. The scenes that feature Riggs' outbursts have intensity rarely matched in the history of cinema. Both Glover and Gibson employ a lot of talent in order to slowly build tolerance and later the bond between those two almost irreconcilable personalities. All other actors were shadowed by such great performances, although some, like Traci Wolfe as Murtaugh's daughter with teenage crush on Riggs, underlines humanity of lead characters.

Unfortunately, the film loses its momentum in the second half, when character exposition gives way for action and all cliches associated with it. In many ways, those actions scenes, although well-done, are implausible (Murtaugh and Riggs, no matter how insane they are, would hardly go after whole army of vicious killers without back-up) or even predictable (dreadful final showdown between Riggs and chief assassin played by Gary Busey). Some critics would frown upon the such first class characters being used in third grade plot that deals with government agents going bad and using covert ops for selfish and nefarious purposes - something that became action movie cliche by itself in late 1980s. Such plots, inspired by Iran-Contra scandal and all conspiracy theories that followed it, could, unfortunately, be inspired by some world conflicts that are actual today and where the line between political intrigue, military operation and organised crime is always blurred (as the career of recently deceased Serb paramilitary leader Arkan clearly shows).

Despite being associated with uninspired sequels and cliched one-liner about old age and certain bodily function (actually borrowed by Friedkin's TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. shot two years earlier), LETHAL WEAPON remains one of those rare 1980s action films that passed the test of time.

Copyright 2000 Dragan Antulov

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