VHS Revival explores the richness of one of cinema’s most magical pairings.
Lethal Weapon is the pinnacle of the buddy cop picture.
It is also one of the finest action movies ever put to celluloid, and is perhaps the only production to rival Die Hard as the genre’s high point. The two films have many elements in common. Both movies feature black and white partners, both are set during the Christmas period, and both feature heroes who are much more relatable than characters who have appeared in the vast majority of action vehicles. It is this relatability that is key to both movies.
The two films are also very different. With Die Hard, John McTiernan gave us an underdog with his back to the wall, a lone warrior who reluctantly took on an entire gang of sophisticated criminals with nothing but wry, proletarian wit and everyman instincts. His is a journey of festive redemption as he fights to save his ex-wife and be reunited with his estranged family in time for Christmas.
The star of Lethal Weapon has no family. Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is a strung-out Vietnam Vet mourning the death of his wife. He lives in isolation in a trailer far away from suburbia and thinks of reasons not to eat a bullet every day of his life. That reason is the job, but colleagues no longer want to be near him. Some have him pegged as a psychotic at the end of his tether, while others figure he’s simply trying to draw a psycho pension and qualify for early retirement. The truth is, Riggs is neither, but nobody is willing to stick around long enough to find out.
That is until Riggs meets Roger Murtaugh, a police sergeant who is only days from retirement. In an ’80s environment of cocaine nights and middle-aged bachelors crying themselves to sleep, he is the very personification of a traditional family man, with moral values and a loving family who comprise his whole world. His wife and kids no longer want to see him risking his life for the good of society, and on the eve of his 50th birthday he sees no reason not to grant them their wish. Murtaugh’s eldest daughter is becoming a woman, and he is at pains to see her become a product of the times he spends his days policing. Put succinctly, Roger is getting too old for this shit.
Of course, there is always room for change, and in each other Riggs and Murtaugh find their reasons for adapting. From the very beginning, the two polar opposites are drawn hopelessly to one another, Roger initially mistaking the precinct’s newbie for an armed criminal looking to tear up the place. When Roger attempts to disarm his soon-to-be partner, he gets a glimpse of the reputation that precedes him. We’ve already seen Riggs take on an entire gang of drug smugglers single-handed, walking into sniper gunfire with a reckless abandon that defies his skill and precision. From the very beginning we are waiting to see if Riggs can live up to his hardman stature, and when that time finally comes he doesn’t disappoint.
Our ruffled hero is much more than an unstoppable killing machine, however, and it isn’t long before Murtaugh discovers that there is more to Martin Riggs than the reckless manic depressant who thinks nothing of handcuffing himself to suicide jumpers and taking the dive with them. Mel Gibson’s wild-eyed charm gives us a character of great humour and likeability, one that as an audience you can’t help but succumb to, and Roger is no exception. Riggs finds Murtaugh at a tough time. On top of his retirement woes, he has just received news that a friend’s daughter has committed suicide and is tasked to investigate, and although Riggs is wise enough to keep his distance, he is human enough to reach Roger in his time of need.
In spite of his reputation, Riggs is a playful soul, and he uses an infantile persistence to pierce Roger’s stubborn resolve, giving birth to one of the finest examples of onscreen chemistry ever captured by a lens. This was Gibson’s big Hollywood break following success in the Mad Max movies, and he couldn’t have landed a better role to catapult him to the big time, or a finer supporting man to back him up. Like the actors who portray them, the seeming opposites are made for each other, and it isn’t long before the two become inseparable, Riggs rediscovering his passion for life and dragging the old dog back into the game.
Riggs and his reluctant compadre share a passion for the job, and they feed off each other’s better qualities, their blossoming partnership underscored by a natural sense of camaraderie. Equally accommodating are Roger’s family, and Riggs quickly finds himself becoming a part of the Murtaugh homestead. Mothered by matriarch Trish (Darlene Love) and welcomed by youngest children Nick and Carrie, Riggs rediscovers his capacity for happiness, and is even able to fool around at the expense of a ruffled Roger, as eldest daughter Rianne (Traci Wolfe) inevitably falls for the mysterious blue-eyed charmer who shows up on her doorstep. In-between chasing bad guys, Roger tries to get Martin to quit smoking, while shooting for the leg becomes the lesson of the day. In no time at all, Roger decides to adopt Riggs as one of his own.
Ironically, when his adopted family get caught up in police business and Rianne is kidnapped by a bunch of mercenaries beset on a multi-million dollar heroin deal, it is Murtaugh who turns to Riggs for support. Riggs is the kind of badass who would sleep with his gun under his pillow if he slept at all, an ex-special forces hitman who ranks up there with the best snipers the US Army has ever known. If you tie him up and try to electrocute him, you’re destined to end up with a broken neck, and if you fuck with those who are dear to him, then God help you and everyone involved.
When General McCallister and dead-eyed henchman, Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), threaten Murtaugh’s family, they threaten that of Riggs by extension, and all bets are off as the two buddies throw away the rulebook and get personal. Riggs may be crazy, but when things go sour, he is the lethal weapon you want in your corner, and Roger is smart enough to realise that if he is ever going to get Rianna back, the the only way is Riggs’ way.
Richard Donner is a master of action set-pieces, shooting everything on an epic scale that was truly breathtaking back in the late-’80s. He also has a knack for the emblematic, resulting in iconic images such as Riggs pelting shirtless across the highway carrying a semi-automatic rifle. The stand-off in the desert, where a presumed-dead Riggs lays low with a sniper rifle while Murtaugh comes face-to-face with his daughter’s kidnappers is a genre classic, as is the final hydrant-soaked battle on the Murtuagh family lawn, Roger finally taking his partner’s advice by shooting for the kill.
The movie is also blessed with a wonderful screenplay from the now veteran Shane Black, and his punchy, heartfelt dialogue is key to the movie’s success, as is the aforementioned chemistry of our leading men, whose enigmatic onscreen relationship would forge a whole series of sequels, each pulling you deeper into the movie’s family aspect to the point where the characters feel like a part of your own. Not only do you invest in the duo’s burgeoning relationship, you feel it at your very core. You are there for the laughter and the heartache, and you will them to victory every step of the way.
The movie begins with a suicide and ends with a wholesome Christmas gathering. This is a world strewn with violence, with loneliness and isolation, but also with reassuring irony and soothing kinship. It is gritty, humorous and touching in equal measures, a balance that has never been equalled in the action movie canon, and one that perhaps never will. The film is at once grounded and spectacular, intimate yet distinctly blockbuster. It has everything that a movie of this variety should have, and it was the first one to tell us so.
Many of the events in Lethal Weapon have very little to do with reality, but the emotions are distinctly authentic, and revisiting it fills you with a sense of nostalgia that is something akin to returning to the town where you were raised. The faces are familiar, the camaraderie is strangely comforting, and rewatcing scenes such as the one in which Riggs shoots a smiley face into a target at the precinct range is like hanging around with old friends: the joke never gets old, and you often find yourself seeking out the memories as if the lives of these characters were your very own.