RECAP: Lethal Weapon
Lethal Weapon (1987): Richard Donner
The 1980s were fun time to live it up in Los Angeles, and Lethal Weapon captured both the glamorous and deadly sides of that lifestyle. It also paired two actors you wouldn’t expect to work onscreen and made a classic buddy couple.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Two cops at diametrically opposed moments in their lives team up to stop a team of ex-Special Forces drug dealers in Los Angeles.
Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) opens his role in the movie in his derelict beach trailer having a morning smoke, beer, and piss, all with the TV on a game show. Riggs lost his wife three years ago to a car accident, and not a day passes when he doesn’t do two things: cry over photos of his wedding day and stick a gun in his mouth.
Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) begins his day in the bathtub, with a birthday cake from his loving family. He’s turning 50, and the grays in his beard, pointed out by his daughter, motivate him to shave it. He nips from a massive plate of bacon on his way to a job that hasn’t troubled him in 20 years on the force.
Murtaugh and Riggs are two of Los Angeles’s best police officers, though they’ve never worked together. They couldn’t be more different, but a mysterious death of a young woman brings them together.
The case: Lethal Weapon opens with a young woman snorting pills in a fancy Los Angeles hotel room. She sways to the balcony and plunges over the ledge, falling several stories to smash a parked car.
The next day Murtaugh receives the details of the case. The woman’s pills were laced with drain cleaner, so she would have died no matter what happened. And her name was Amanda Hunsaker, daughter of a banker Murtaugh knows from his Vietnam days.
Murtaugh is tasked with solving the case while also breaking in his new partner, Riggs. Murtaugh meets Riggs in the precinct, when he spots Riggs drawing his service weapon and responding by shouting “Gun!” and tackling him. The fight ends with Riggs’s foot on Murtaugh’s throat.
That’s called getting off on the wrong foot. The pair explosively feel each other out for a couple of days. One scene takes them to question a witness moments before her house explodes. Another early scene is a textbook case of character building.
The cops take a call of a possible jumper, and Murtaugh and Riggs answer. Riggs is eager to join the jumper on the ledge of the five-story building, where we meet an unbalanced man wearing a business suit and a haggard look. Riggs coaxes the man down from the ledge (figuratively) so he can get close to him. When he does, Riggs cuffs himself to the jumper. If he goes, they both go.
The jumper does go over the edge, but because an excited Riggs jumps for him. When they hit the giant air bag the police inflated below, the man is begging for help, to get away from Riggs.
So we know Riggs has a death wish. He and Murtaugh follow the jump airing their grievances. Murtaugh screams and stamps, wondering if his partner is crazy or only trying to draw a psycho pension.
Riggs, bugged-eyed, explains that he has a special hollow point bullet ready to do the job right. “I think of a reason not to do it,” he shouts. “Every. Single. Day.” Murtaugh is right in his face and puts his finger inside the hammer of Riggs’s gun as Riggs pulls the trigger. He believes Riggs really is suicidal. It’s an important development in their relationship.
Once the two have sized each other up they can go to work. The two are nearly killed by a shotgun-wielding drug addict/dealer. They are nearly exploded at a house. Riggs is shot in the chest, but his vest saves him. They survive Murtaugh’s wife’s terrible cooking.
The men who murdered the two Hunsakers and deal the drugs were formerly working for the CIA, running the Vietnam War. They are bad dudes, and they kept their connections with the Asian drug runners who funded the North Vietnamese cause.
Murtaugh and Riggs track down the bad guys, of course, but it’s their great lines that set them apart from most other cop duos. Glover is famous for his classic line, twice delivered, “I’m too old for this shit.” That’s hall of fame level, Nolan Ryan fireball stuff right there.
Don’t sleep on Riggs, though. Mel delivers an all-time great performance. The scene where he contemplates suicide is treated with real pathos, fear, and despair. For a moment you think Lethal Weapon might be a drama. Later, after getting shot he says, “Now I’m pissed,” and vows to “bury the fuckers.”
Murtaugh, stuck with Riggs, laments that God hates him. “Hate him back,” Riggs says. “Works for me.” Riggs, turns out, is the lethal weapon of the title. When he’s not about to shoot himself in the head he’s daring drug dealers to do it for him or jumping off buildings.
Riggs worked on something called Phoenix Project in ‘Nam, and his skills translate. He carries a 16-round Baretta, a gun he knows well enough to shoot a smiley face in a target sheet at 50+ yards. Shooting is the only thing Riggs was ever good at.
Murtaugh has his family life and knows Riggs will probably get him killed. When the bad guys go for the eldest Murtaugh daughter, her father gets mad at the bad guys and not Riggs. He knows this ain’t Riggs’s fault, and that he’ll need his partner if they will survive the movie.
Murtaugh and Riggs deserve their place in the pantheon of great cop duos. Glover and Gibson bring their strongest work to the roles. They are the chief reasons the movie earned three sequels.
Gary Busey plays the movie’s villain despite being the obvious sidekick to The General (Mitchell Ryan), an interesting narrative choice that neither improves or worsens the movie. Just makes it different. Busey plays Joshua, a blonde guy with his face caving in, a condition known to the rest of the world as dimples.
Joshua is a nutcase and pain-loving freak, evidenced by his inability to flinch from an open flame. Or he can’t feel pain like his Lisbeth Salander’s brother.
Joshua enjoys inflicting pain on others. No doubt about it. In Lethal Weapon he does the following things: pays a woman to lace another woman’s drugs with drain cleaner; he kills that woman he hired, not by normal means but by blowing up her house in broad daylight; he snipers a man from a helicopter at his daughter’s funeral; he helps a man electrocute Riggs; he kidnaps Murtaugh’s daughter; he drives a car while it is on fire; he tries to shoot Riggs and Murtaugh while being arrested.
Sorry for the italics. They were necessary. Joshua, when he commits an act, seems to think of ways to make his bad acts more sinister or spectacular, or both. Doing all this while being Gary Busey makes Joshua one of the scariest former Special Forces-turned-drug dealers you’ll meet. The only flaw was not being in the movie enough.
The fireworks kick up a notch in the second half of Lethal Weapon. It starts when the bad guys capture Murtaugh and Riggs. They take them to the back of their club to find out what the police know about their operation. While Murtaugh gets a standard beat down, Riggs gets tortured.
Joshua brings in a torture specialist, a man who’s forgotten more about pain than he will ever know, to draw out what he knows. Riggs dangles above a tub of water as a stream douses him from above. For some reason they’ve stuck him in an alley between walls. Is this outside? We can’t tell. It’s a strange location, but memorable for it.
The torture guy has a battery, which he uses to zap Riggs a few times. When Riggs swings away from the electric implements, Joshua swings him back. “I’m gonna fucking kill both of you,” Riggs shouts.
He doesn’t wait long to kill the torturer. Joshua believes Riggs knows nothing so he leaves. The torturer gets too close. Riggs, using incredible core strength, head butts the guy and wraps his legs around him until he chokes him to death.
Riggs carries the body fireman style into the next room, where Murtaugh’s being beaten, and his daughter is there. Riggs throws the body at a bad guy. He grabs the gun hand of another guy to shoot a different guy, then turns the hand into the man’s gut to fire two more bullets into him.
Riggs, Murtaugh, and the girl go into the nightclub full of dancers. Riggs shoots the first person he sees, who was probably a bad guy. He shoots the next two guys before anyone knows what’s going on. The dancers take cover, and good thing, because Joshua is down the hall spraying machine gun fire at everyone. Riggs shoots right back, not careful about hitting innocents.
Joshua leaves the club and commandeers a car. Riggs steps into the busy street and, showing no fear of being hit by a car (and why would he; he has a death wish), blasts out Joshua’s back window. Murtaugh is too tired (and old for this shit) to pursue, but he calculates that Joshua’s headed for the freeway, and if Riggs runs–yeah, runs–this way and that way he’ll cut him off.
Riggs does exactly that and proves his partner correct. Riggs stands on a bridge overlooking an offramp that Joshua has turned into an onramp. Riggs, with his 1,000-yard rifle range, shoots up the car’s hood enough to make it catch fire.
Joshua makes it a little further before he has to bail out. Riggs uses the time to slide down a hill and join the same road. Joshua stops another car (easy to do with automatic weapons in tote), and asks a guy “Mind if I test drive your Audi?” He takes the car before hearing an answer. Riggs, meanwhile, is hit by a taxi, and this allows Joshua to temporarily escape.
Murtaugh gets his moment in the sun. He’s tired, but he’s somehow tracked down The General’s escape plan. In an alley near the club, Murtaugh stands at its exit as The General tries to escape with a driver. The General demands the driver run Murtaugh over, but Murtaugh won’t stand down. “No way you live,” he mutters. Murtaugh does the neck crack thing people do to show they are ready. He takes one shot with his six-round Smith and Wesson and it kills the driver.
There’s some shoddy side seat driving from The General until he makes the road and is hit by a bus. The car flips. The general survives long enough to notice a pinless grenade juuuuuust out of his reach. Does the car explode? Duh it explodes. Murtaugh laughs.
Murtaugh’s daughter has a few scenes. There’s also a cameo from one of the Agent Johnson’s of Die Hard fame. Lethal Weapon is Murtaugh’s and Riggs’s show, and that’s why it’s a strong movie.
I love how the bad guys wore the nicest suits in the 1980s. The former soldiers now drug dealers know they represent a conglomerate of big-time businessmen, and they dress accordingly.
The leader of the pack is a former general, a man known to Riggs by reputation alone. He got his start leading Shadow Company, a CIA front running the Vietnam War from Laos (according to Riggs).
Joshua and Riggs have a hand-to-hand duel outside Murtaugh’s house to end the movie. It’s unclear why they do this. Riggs seemed to want a fistfight, and after all the cops have arrived he goads Joshua into one.
So they fight. Riggs is shirtless. Both are wet from the busted fire hydrant spraying the yard. Police car headlights and siren lights illuminate the scene. Just one problem, they forgot to make a good fight. The editing and framing, so excellent throughout the movie, fails during their fight. My guess is the choreography sucked and they tried to cover it up.
Watching Mel Gibson run was more riveting than watching him fight.
After Joshua escapes Riggs, the pair realize that he knows where Murtaugh lives. “What do you mean he got away?” Murtaugh asks. “Hey fire me,” Riggs says.
Riggs takes the wheel for a change to drive to his partner’s house. What’s shocking is that they beat Joshua there, though we don’t know that for a while. Instead we follow Joshua, as he pulls up beside the cops parked outside the house watching for an “albino jackrabbit” who happens to be Joshua. Joshua kills both cops, sending their car into a fire hydrant.
Joshua shoots open Murtaugh’s front door. He shoots a TV playing A Christmas Carol, telling the TV “Merry Christmas.” As he steps into the living room he finds a note tacked to the tree, telling him that he’s too late. Suddenly a police car bursts through the wall. Joshua shoots it up but finds it driverless.
Next thing he knows Riggs has a gun at Joshua’s head. Riggs coaxes him onto the lawn and asks if he wants “a shot at the title.” They do their terrible fight as the cops watch. Murtaugh keeps them back because he is somehow the officer in command on the site, despite it being his own house.
Toward the end Joshua takes hold of a post and swings it at Riggs. Murtaugh tosses a police baton to his partner, and Riggs uses it to block the post blows. Joshua eventually discards the weapon so he can lift Riggs and body slam him onto a car hood. Riggs attains the upper hand and does some nifty flips to get his legs wrapped around Joshua’s neck. They grapple in the mud, and as the cops are chanting for him to kill Joshua, Riggs lets him go, saying that he’s not worth it.
As two cops go to cuff Joshua, the blond bandit swings one around to grab his gun. Murtaugh and Riggs waste no time. They both draw guns and shoot him simultaneously. That satisfied me.
Riggs visits his wife’s grave the next day. We don’t know if it’s for the first time since she died, but something’s changed in him. That night he travels to Murtaugh’s house for Christmas dinner. He has a present for his partner–the hollow point bullet. He won’t need it.
Riggs is a walking joke machine, if you think living on the edge of oblivion is funny. Well, I do.
Mel Gibson keeps characters and the audience guessing about his sanity in nearly every scene, and that leads to some laughs. He’s intense when he’s serious, and he’s funny when he’s funny. That comes from full commitment to a character.
It helps when Riggs seems to have fun with himself. The scene in which he talks a potentially suicidal jumper off a roof by jumping for him is a landmark case in how not to handle a potentially suicidal jumper. It was funny, though.
There’s also plenty of children in Lethal Weapon, and we know the manner of things kids will say: the darnedest. Having a stick in the mud like Danny Glover interrogate six-year-olds is like watching a dog trying to drive a car. Not only does it seem impossible, it seems like the two entities exist in other worlds.
The good and bad actors try doing a deal in the California desert. Murtaugh and Riggs drive to meet Joshua and a mess of bad guys in a sandy wasteland.
The producers knew this scene would look great on screen, and they sent their best helicopter film crew to capture it. There’s a huge buildup to the meeting and several shots of the group from the encircling helicopter.
Thanks to the work, the scene is seared into memory. Thank goodness, because most other locations are run-of-the-mill Los Angeles. No big deal, but that desert scene looks great and drags the movie’s score up.
The marquee in the background indicates the theater is showing Lost Boys, another Warner Bros. movie released four months after Lethal Weapon. It’s already a hit!
Seems that product placement is the key statement in the movie. You’ll note that our heroes are about to drink Pepsi in this scene. They just came from a bank giving away a Mitsubishi. Later, Joshua makes a point of stealing an Audi to drive away and pointing that out to the audience.
Black/white buddy cops were a hot genre in the 1980s and beyond, following Eddie Murphy’s success in 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop, the #1 movie in 1984.
Lethal Weapon is perhaps the best example of the genre, and, with three sequels, its most successful. Murtaugh is as straight-laced as cops can be. He lays out the ways his life is working: wife, kids, house, boat, twenty years on the force and not a scratch on him.
Riggs, we know, has a special hollow-point bullet for the day or night he decides to kill himself. Yet Riggs is allowed to stay on the force.
I kept wondering what would Riggs’s career be like if he were black. Would he have a career? Would the world be a little more against him?
I don’t know, but I did wonder.
- I can’t recall ever seeing a gun safety onscreen before.
- No one runs harder than Martin Riggs.
- Burbank is the cat’s name. Meow.
- That was funny when Riggs asked Joshua, “Why don’t you guys just call it heroin?”
- (1) Mel Gibson’s hair.
Summary (35/68): 51%
The lead actors left everything on the screen in Lethal Weapon. Credit Richard Donner for good direction. Their differences and interaction, coupled with an excellent script from Shane Black make the movie a classic buddy cop movie, if not the standard by which all others are measured. Sun, fun, and guns make for an enjoyable two hours.