If there is one name that springs to mind when someone mentions 80’s action movies, it’s… Die Hard. What a great film! And a Christmas movie too. Those 80’s… they sure knew how to cinema. Well, wouldn’t you believe my ears as I was watching the second most memorable actioneer of that decade, Lethal Weapon, as it opens with a Christmas song. Wait wait wait… Lethal Weapon is a Christmas movie too? And it came out before Die Hard? How did I not know this? I guess the obvious answer is that I actually hadn’t seen Lethal Weapon until recently. I saw the fourth one a while ago, but my understanding is that it doesn’t count.
This film marks the the first collaboration of Richard Donner and Shane Black, making this Donner’s most memorable film apart from that time that he brought Superman to life back in the 1970’s. People remember that film, right? Shane Black, on the other hand, was a young, unknown screenwriter at the time and was known best for being killed by The Predator the same year. The success of this film launched his career and now he’s kind of an auteur, making original flicks like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and most recently, The Nice Guys.
Lethal Weapon follows two cops, Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh (see what they did there?) who are assigned together to solve the mystery of a young girl who threw herself out of hotel window. But it turns out she may have been poisoned and the case may be a homicide. Riggs (Mel Gibson) is a crazy cop who doesn’t follow the rules, but is legitimately mourning the loss of his wife and may be suicidal. Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is just celebrating his 50th birthday and is a veteran who doesn’t really want a loose cannon partner. But who knows, maybe they’ll be a great team after all! Nah… that could never work. These guys are just too different!
At first glance, this movie hasn’t aged overly well. It has that grainy 80’s aesthetic that’s hard to replicate; complete with saxophone and wailing guitar scores and ridiculous mullets. But actually, if you look at its contemporaries, it’s aged a whole lot better. (Except Die Hard. Man, Die Hard seems so timeless.) Lethal Weapon isn’t so in your face in its 80sness (a real word.) It’s considerably less neon and the fashion isn’t obviously extreme. Perhaps over time we’ve exaggerated what the 80’s was really like. Either that or they kept this movie decidedly adult and grounded. But most importantly, the story holds up. With minor alterations to the technology, like from a clunky car phone to a smart phone, and a much needed mullet trim, you could easily place this story in modern day.
What Lethal Weapon does have over Die Hard is that it is the gold standard for buddy cop films. Movies for years would be trying to replicate the chemistry between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. There is a natural tension between the two of them. Glover is the grounded, relatable one, bringing an authority and wisdom to the screen. Gibson is charming and fun, and has a convincing darkness and insanity in his eyes. Their partnership feels like it’s between two fleshed out characters. They sometimes agree, they sometimes don’t. There isn’t a dumb one and smart one. There isn’t a goofy one and a straight one. They have their own personal lives outside of their jobs and in their jobs and that’s the key to their success as on on screen duo.
A lot of that has to do with Shane Black’s script. His style has since improved since this film and I like his more recent movies a lot more, but there is a strange finesse to the way he writes the connection between the two leads. They are at odds with each other and them learning and coming to work together is actually pretty organic and even subtle at times. The events that take place are far from subtle, but the growth of Riggs and Murtaugh actually is. And it also takes some talent to tackle the subjects that Black does in this script, such as depression and suicide. It’s a bold decision without feeling like a bold decision because he takes it in so bluntly that it feels real. The others’ insensitivity to Riggs’ suicidal tendencies does seem like something that would be genuine at the time. It’s a bit jarring from my modern cultural perspective, but actually works to the film’s advantage. Nowadays movies might handle it very differently, handling it all with a level of gravitas that would imbalance the actual story. And dammit, that would be no fun at all.
Despite what the film succeeds at, there are problems with it. There is a sort of projection of hyper-masculinity, particularly in Riggs, that takes some authenticity out of the characters and the situations. Why wrap up the movie naturally when we could have a muddy martial arts battle to end us out? Maybe I’ve seen too many legitimate cop shows to not find that whole thing absolutely ridiculous. “Sorry Captain, we were ordered to just stand there and watch.” Or maybe that’s just how things were in the 80’s. Police could just do things the cooler way rather than by the book. I get that movies can and sometimes should take the more entertaining route, but not at the cost of the story and the pace. One could make some minor alterations to fix it up, really.
Overall, it’s understandable why it’s a well remembered action film. It stands as a benchmark for the buddy cop genre and very few films have been able to meet that standard, including the sequels. (Actually, the second one was quite good too.) It’s a time capsule for a bold time in cinema and a cultural landscape that has since changed. Also, it’s a pretty fun time at the movies, so that helps.