At a time when sequels were becoming just another marketing component, VHS Revival recalls a narrative well worth expanding on
There are very few movies that deserved a sequel as much as Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon; not because it was set up that way, but because of the potential of the movie’s narrative and the ever-burgeoning relationship of its characters. 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. Though the devilish spawn of William Friedkin’s supernatural masterpiece The Exorcist, Exorcist II: The Heretic was a huge blow to a burgeoning franchise, while fellow genre high point The Omen — also directed by Donner — would slump into the realms of anticlimax with 1978‘s Damien: Omen II. 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.
Back in 1987, Richard Donner would direct what many consider to be the pinnacle of the buddy-cop movie. Lethal Weapon was a smash-mouth action vehicle, but what set it apart was the heartwarming onscreen chemistry of its leading men, helped in no small part by a witty and affectionate screenplay from a young Shane Black. Following the success of the first movie, it was no surprise when Warner Brothers came calling about the prospect of a sequel. Black was once again approached, but instead of a bigger is better retread the screenwriter had something else in mind.
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. 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 the director, 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. 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 to the fray in an attempt to freshen the fold, and in the end an excessive cast would make fickle fare of the Getz character, as later sequels leaned more towards action sitcom territory, but his initial integration was flawless and a big reason why many believe Lethal Weapon 2 to be the superior entry.
Riggs: We’re back, we’re bad, you’re black, I’m mad.
In spite of laying the seeds for a popular franchise, Donner was dead against the idea of a ‘bigger is better’ sequel, and though the movie is undeniably bolder in the action stakes, 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 famously full-throttle opening, which picks up 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 preparing to share Christmas dinner at the Murtaugh homestead, 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.”
Admittedly, the action is bigger, but so are the laughs. From the opening high-speed chase to the infamous ‘toilet scene’ which sees Riggs risk his own life by pulling his partner off a bomb-infused basin, the action and comedy are 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 a visceral sense, 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 therefore the situation. Even Leo pops in for a bit of muted innuendo, while Riggs 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.
Martin Riggs: I’m surprised you haven’t heard of me, I got a bad reputation, like sometimes I just go nuts like now ha ha!
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 freezing fraction. Riggs may have returned from the darkside for the majority of the movie, but the Lethal Weapon title alludes to the once elemental bad ass that is Martin Riggs, and a trigger was needed to unearth a now largely domesticated animal if the movie was to pack the same punch. That trigger comes in a duo of classic bad guys. The first of those is the diplomatically immune Arjen Rudd (Joss Ackland), a drug dealer who uses LA as his own personal playground, and a character who would set up one of the most iconic quips in genre history. 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 on ‘kaffirs’ like Martin’s best friend Roger, or the members of the precinct they ultimately lay waste to. Not only does the cold-blooded Vorstedt dispose of Riggs’ naive love interest and Rudd employee Rika Van Den Haas (Patsy Kensit), we also find out that he was responsible for the death of our protagonist’s wife, a revelation that inevitably pushes Riggs over the proverbial edge. For all the reasons one may view the original as the superior movie, Lethal Weapon 2 features arguably the best bad guys in the entire series, and it has to be said, there isn’t much between the two.
Donner was aware of this, 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. Originally, Donner was simply going to have a huge melee at the house, where the lovable Leo was 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. Speaking about the colossal scene in question, 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.”
Riggs: Don’t try and stop me, Rog.
Murtaugh: Yeah, I’ve seen that look in your eyes before.
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 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; not as a means to justify that violence, but as a means to provide the kind of entertainment that forged action movies with heart.
By the time Lethal Weapon 2 came around, the once isolated Riggs was 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 moments that transcend the macho boundaries of Rog and Martin’s relationship, regardless of how inseparable they are. Even daughter Rianne (Traci Wolfe), once enamoured with Martin’s handsome facade, becomes like a younger sister, and he in turn provides her with the unconditional protection of an older sibling. 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, characters who had become like family. This feeling was punctuated by Lethal Weapon’s 4‘s fitting finale, one that sees our expanded cast gather in the hospital 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 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.”
I think the majority of us would agree with that sentiment.