At a time when sequels were becoming just another marketing component, VHS Revival recalls a narrative well worth expanding on
In an industry saturated with money-spinning sequels, few movies deserved one quite like Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon; not because it was set up that way, but because of the potential of its narrative and the ever-burgeoning relationship of its cast and characters. Thanks to the blue-eyed charm of Mel Gibson and the natural camaraderie forged with co-star Danny Glover, Lethal Weapon wasn’t your typical action movie, or even your typical buddy movie. Watching the two actors feed off each other was poetry in motion, Shane Black’s snappy and relatable dialogue warming hearts and turning up smiles as Donner delivered exhilarating popcorn action with masterful aplomb. The film turned a corner by placing personality above muscle, and by the time the credits rolled on the extended Murtaugh family Christmas dinner, audiences were already clamouring for a sequel.
Though sequels had long-been established, it was the 1980s that saw them grow into an essential component of the marketing beast. The 1970s had witnessed the dawn of the dreaded numbered sequel, but those movies were few and far between, productions such as The French Connection II and The Godfather Part II hardly the products of premeditated money-spinning campaigns. Conversely, those films were arguably on a par with, if not superior to their antecedents, but a very different trend would soon develop. Other numbered sequels released during the 1970s were of a different breed entirely. Superman II and Rocky II were a more financially attractive prospect for the series of movies they would inevitably spawn, but are still considered high-calibre additions with stories worth expanding on.
Other sequels were not so well received but would prove influential to the trends of the following decade. The devilish spawn of William Friedkin’s supernatural masterpiece The Exorcist, Exorcist II: The Heretic, was a huge blow to a burgeoning franchise creatively, while fellow genre high point The Omen — also directed by Donner — would slump into the realms of anticlimax with 1978‘s Damien: Omen II, despite its newfound status as a well crafted and memorable follow-up. But win or lose, something had become apparent to filmmakers: the numbered sequel had proven extremely popular, and money was there to be made.
By the mid-1980s, sequels were almost a given. It didn’t matter if the narratives of the original films were worth expanding on, and for many low-budget filmmakers looking to forge franchise machines of their own, story value was besides the point. Big production companies were no different. For every Mad Max II there was a Superman IV, and pretty soon you could count the number of good sequels released each year on one hand, and that’s if you were lucky.
Many feel that the Lethal Weapon formula lost some of its edge after the formerly suicidal Vietnam vet Martin Riggs was domesticated by the welcoming arms of the Murtaugh family. Part of the original movie’s appeal was the Riggs character as a fabled, largely unknown quantity living on the edge, a ‘lethal weapon’ who could blow at any time. That Riggs was dangerous, a character with nothing to lose who was utterly unpredictable and utterly compelling for it. Having found a certain degree of peace by the end of the first movie, it would be impossible to recreate that level of unpredictability, but our lead actors were so likeable and convincing in their roles that we longed to see their friendship develop further. The plot and the action took a backseat to their burgeoning relationship as new characters were added to the fold. Above all else, the Lethal Weapon movies were about togetherness and camaraderie.
Roger: Why didn’t they plant the bomb in Trish’s stove?
Riggs: Yeah. Think of all the needless suffering that could’ve ended there!
Roger: I’m gonna die on a toilet, aren’t I?
Riggs: Guys like you don’t die on toilets.
Interestingly, Shane Black, who was once again approached to write the sequel, initially had something else in mind for Lethal Weapon 2. Originally titled Play Dirty, the movie was rejected by Donner and producer Joel Silver for being too dark, including an ending that saw Riggs bite the dust in a franchise-killing development. As good as the screenplay was, Black’s proposed tone was not a good business model, but it wasn’t all about money — at least not for Donner, who knew more than anyone the potential of both Mel Gibson and Danny Glover for comedy and good cheer. “We had a lot more freedom than we did in part one,” he said in an interview following the sequel’s initial release. “Mel wasn’t a suicidal character anymore… Danny and Mel have such great humour and are such great improvisational actors that we just had a chance to have a lot of laughs and have a good time.”
Key to the sequel’s sense of fun was the casting of Joe Pesci, who was then best known for his supporting role as Jake LaMotta’s long-suffering younger brother in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. What people didn’t realise was that Pesci was just as adept at comedy, and his addition as the ‘third stooge’ was a natural process that gave the movie a new dimension. Pesci is a revelation as the slick and slippery Getz, the perfect accompaniment for a precious partnership that could just as easily have been sabotaged if handled incorrectly. The Lethal Weapon series would make a habit of adding new characters in an attempt to freshen the fold, and an excessive cast would eventually make fickle fare of the Getz character, reducing him to something of a plot device as later sequels leaned more towards action sitcom territory, but his initial integration was flawless and hugely rewarding, and one of the reasons why many believe Lethal Weapon 2 to be the superior entry.
Despite laying the foundations for a hugely successful franchise, Donner was dead against the idea of a ‘bigger is better’ sequel. The movie is undeniably bolder in the action stakes, but he didn’t really see it like that, instead viewing it as a continuation. “Everybody says you try and better yourself,” he would say. “I thought the action was less in some ways. And I was pushing for everyone to come up with something different. We just had fun with the action. It evolved out of a situation.” In fact, it took many rewrites to decide on the film’s gloriously full-throttle opening, which immediately focuses on the crowd-pleasing camaraderie of the first movie without skipping a beat. Following draft after draft of filler explaining what Riggs and Roger had been up to since we last saw them, Donner and his cast decided on an entirely different approach, one that defied the usual template for a by-the-numbers sequel. “It was a drag. It was a bore,” Donner said when discussing the evolution of the process. “It became a sequel, and I didn’t want it to be a sequel. I wanted it to be an action piece of a continuing saga in (the characters’) lives.”
For me, the action is bigger, but so are the laughs. From the opening high-speed chase to the infamous ‘toilet scene’ that sees Riggs risk his own life by pulling his partner off a bomb-infused basin, the action and comedy are flawlessly intertwined. It is perhaps this scene, more than any in the series, that encapsulates Lethal Weapon’s winning formula of action, comedy and camaraderie. Where else would you find such a bizarre setting that not only fulfils audience expectation in terms of suspense, but which doesn’t waste a word in developing its characters and their relationship? It is touching, heartfelt and downright ludicrous, but you believe in the characters and their almost slapstick situation. Riggs’ decision to stay with Roger, to literally live or die with him, is the kind of touching moment that most action fodder could only dream of, and despite the gravity of the situation, the humour never falters. Leo, an amoral conman under police protection who our heroes immediately warm to, pops in for a bit of muted innuendo as the two get emotional in the most embarrassing of circumstances. Not one to mire in defeatism, Riggs even has the temerity to create a wild circus of spectators after Rog pleads with him to keep his embarrassing predicament on the down-low. Many have attempted to emulate such an inspired formula and nearly all have fallen short. Even the more superior efforts fail to pull it off with half as much class.
Roger Murtaugh: [shouting] DROP IT, ASSHOLE!
Martin Riggs: [weakly] Rog…
Arjen Rudd: [holds up his wallet] Diplomatic immunity.
[Roger slowly rolls his head on his neck, takes aim, and fires – his bullet goes through Rudd’s wallet, and then his head]
Roger Murtaugh: It’s *just been revoked*!
It’s not all fun and games. In many ways, Lethal Weapon 2 is the last to feature our duo as more than just a straight-up comedic act with holster accessories, which for my money makes it the best sequel and the second best movie in the entire series, missing out on the top spot by a liquid nitrogen delayed fraction. Riggs’ wild side may have been tamed by the Murtaugh olive branch but the Lethal Weapon title alludes to the once elemental bad ass that is Martin Riggs, and a trigger was needed to unearth that dormant dark side if the sequel was to pack a similar punch.
That trigger comes in a duo of classic bad guys, a pair who manage to better Gary Busey’s albino mercenary Mr. Joshua and Mitchell Ryan’s General McAllister. The first of those is the diplomatically immune Arjen Rudd (Joss Ackland), a glorified smuggler who uses LA as his own personal playground, and a character who would set up one of the most iconic quips in genre history. Ackland is suitably smug as the dead-eyed Rudd, the minister of affairs for the South African Consulate, and the movie’s riff on apartheid, a system of legislation that upheld segregationist policies against non-white citizens of South Africa, plays right into Lethal Weapon’s black and white axis and notions of racial solidarity. The scene when Roger and Leo consult with an employee of Rudd about the possibly of moving to south Africa is one of the most priceless in the entire series. When the pair later retell the incident to a returning Riggs, who was busy using the distraction of outside protests to get in Rudd’s face, we feel like we’re in on the joke from the ground floor up. We feel like family.
More important to the Riggs character’s development is Rudd’s right-hand man, Pieter Vorstedt (Derrick O’Connor), a ruthless assassin and South African racist who doesn’t look too favourably upon ‘kaffirs’ like Martin’s best friend Roger, or the members of the precinct they ultimately lay waste to. When the precincts secondary characters are picked of in an audaciously impudent fashion, we take it all rather personally as an audience. This is the same cheeky rabble who littered Roger with rubbers after seeing Traci Wolfe’s Rhianne star in an ad for condoms, a touchy subject made even touchier when the builder working on the Murtaugh homestead, a character who again becomes like family, admits to a crowded room, “It made me want to buy rubbers.” Again, priceless stuff.
Not only does the cold-blooded Vorstedt dispose of Riggs’ naive love interest and Rudd employee Rika Van Den Haas (Patsy Kensit), we find out that he was responsible for the death of our protagonist’s wife, a somewhat contrived but shocking revelation that inevitably pushes Riggs over the proverbial edge and reminds us exactly who we’re dealing with. Vorstedt is such a risible piece of work, his casual displays of racism and violence, coupled with his seeming infallibility making him as bad as they come. It’s all routine for him, a job that he derives a twisted sense of superiority from, but prodding Riggs like a caged animal is the kind of taunting you don’t come back from. He’s like a taper on a stick of dynamite that we just can’t wait to see blow, and the way it’s all paced, from touching moments of bonding to comedic flourishes to explosive action set-pieces and iconic images like that of Riggs standing shirtless on the roof of his trailer, unloading a semi-automatic weapon into an oncoming dead-of-night assault, are truly breathless.
Donner was aware of the importance of his villains, and he went to great lengths to ensure that the movie’s cartel got their just desserts, leading to perhaps the most spectacular moment in the entire movie, one that saw a stilted house torn to the ground by a vengeful Riggs, who is so enraged at discovering his wife’s killer that Murtaugh knows to leave it well alone. Originally, Donner was simply going to have a huge melee at the house, where the lovable Leo is being tortured for information. The house in question was an exact replica of one in the Hollywood Hills, and after much conferring about the cost and time restraints of creating a miniature replica to tear down, they decided on a different method entirely. As Donner would reveal, “We said, ‘[the bad guys] have gotta get their comeuppance… and in a matter of six weeks we duplicated that house in it’s entirety, we duplicated it to a tee. And then one night, about 11 o’clock at night, we tied Mel’s truck to it, and it took us until 11am to 4am in the morning to get up the guts to pull it down, and we pulled it down. We pulled down a half-million dollar house. It was breathtaking; frightening but breathtaking.”
But for all its darkness and rage, for all its comedy and hi-jinks and acerbic one-liners, the true value of the Lethal Weapon franchise comes in the form of its family element, a component that has become largely lost in the slickly barren action movies of the 21st century, the kind that seem to market the genre’s once loving sense of self-awareness as a joyless commodity. The happy-go-lucky way in which movies like Lethal Weapon approached their violence may have been about as far away from reality as anything today, but at least they did it with a smile. The idea that a movie could forge what is essentially family entertainment with guns is an achievement in itself. Like most action movies, the series features the kind of nondiscriminatory violence that would be nothing short of unconscionable in reality, but these are action movies with heart that leave you with a big old smile on your face. Riggs and Murtaugh may be heroes of the superhuman variety, but we relate to them and those in their inner circle on a distinctly human level.
Riggs: We’re back, we’re bad, you’re black, I’m mad.
In Lethal Weapon 2, the once-isolated Riggs has become a fully-fledged member of the Murtaugh homestead. Not only does he waltz around the house as if it were his own, Murtaugh’s wife, Trish (Darlene Love), does his laundry, and even shares the kind of heart-to-heart moment that transcends the macho boundaries of Rog and Martin’s relationship, regardless of how inseparable they are. Even daughter Rianne, once enamoured with Martin’s handsome facade and general blue-eyed charms, has become like a younger sister, and he in turn provides her with the unconditional protection of an older sibling. And it’s an ever-growing family, inside and outside of the Murtaugh residence, from the ever cynical but fundamentally decent Capt. Ed Murphy (Steve Kahan) to Mary Ellen Trainor’s perpetually concerned precinct psychologist Dr. Stephanie Woods. Even the minor comic relief characters feel like family. Even the big-mouthed, rubber-advocating builder hangs around the house drinking beer. As an audience, it’s deeply comforting.
As the series evolved, Donner continued to focus on this element, and rightly so, for when the studio inevitably came calling for their next big-money extravaganza and the action and jokes grew somewhat repetitive, the audience had developed a bond with the cast that kept them coming back. It was more about checking-in with old friends than anything else, rekindling magic of a very personable variety. Just look at the taglines attached to the sequels: ‘The Magic is Back’, ‘The Magic is Back Again’, ‘The Gang’s All Here… The Faces You Love’. Donner and Warner Brothers knew exactly what they were selling and we knew exactly what we were buying into.
This feeling was punctuated by Lethal Weapon’s 4‘s fitting finale, one that sees our expanded cast gather on a hospital ward for an extended family photo as Lorna gives birth to the newest Riggs offspring, leading to a final credits sequence that features real-life Polaroids of not only the best moments in the series, but also behind the scenes images of cast and crew members who themselves had become like family. In an interview for the thirty-year reunion of the original movie back in 2017, Mel Gibson said of the cast’s relationship. “I think it was at a time in our lives when — something just clicked.” Smiling next to him, longtime fictional and real-life partner-in-crime Danny Glover added, “I think you can say anything you want about the films, but I think the relationships got better and better over that period of time.” Looking back on this incredible, game-changing buddy series, it’s hard to disagree.