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 raising 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 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 franchises. Other numbered sequels were crying out for further installments as the decade progressed. In 1975, Steven Spielberg’s cultural phenomenon Jaws gave birth to the summer blockbuster, and Jaws II wasn’t far behind. Rocky Balboa’s 15 round tie with Apollo Creed in Rocky may have been the most plausible ending to John G. Avildsen’s rags-to-riches tale, but deep down audiences longed to see the Italian Stallion capture the gold, sparking the kind of franchise juggernaut that is still going strong today. In a 21st century climate of cinematic universes, blockbuster season is oversaturated with superhero movies, and Donner’s own Superman kicked things off in that regard. Though Rocky II and Superman II weren’t exactly essential in narrative terms, they were on a par with, if not superior to their predecessors, but a very different trend would soon develop.
Other numbered 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, 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. The Omen‘s wink-wink ending, Damien breaking the third wall and offering audiences a telling smile, certainly set things up for a sequel, whether that was the initial intention or not. Friedkin’s The Exorcist was a very different story. A related sequel of any description seemed like a bit of a push considering the movie’s definitive ending, and probably should never have existed, but win or lose from a creative standpoint, something had become apparent: 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 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. If the prospect of a trilogy seemed like overkill in the late 1970s, by the late 1980s it seemed positively restrained. By 1989, the Friday the 13th franchise had already churned out an incredible seven sequels. Not only did Paramount Pictures not care about the quality of those sequels, they went to great pains to keep the series ticking over long after the it had lost all creative value, offering false promises about final chapters, introducing copycat killers, and finding so many implausible ways to bring their marquee attraction back from the dead that the sheer audacity of it all became part of its a appeal. Many high-profile movies suffered the same ignominy. For every Mad Max II there was a Superman IV, for every Terminator 2 there was a Rocky V, and pretty soon you could count the number of good sequels released each year on one hand, and that’s if you were lucky.
Riggs: We’re back, we’re bad, you’re black, I’m mad.
The Lethal Weapon series wasn’t entirely necessary, but it was very much welcome for the most part, each of the four instalments offering a fair degree of bang for your buck. Many feel the 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 that we longed to see their friendship develop further, and in many ways the action took a backseat to their burgeoning relationship as new characters were added to the fold.
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, with 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 Gibson and Glover for comedy gold and good cheer. “We had a lot more freedom than we did in part one,” the director would say 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 as smart-alecy shyster Leo Getz. Back then Pesci was known as a serious actor, delivering Oscar-worthy performances for the likes of Martin Scorsese, but what people didn’t realise was the actor was just as adept at comedy, something he would further solidify the following year as one half of Home Alone‘s bumbling burglar duo the ‘Wet Bandits’. His addition as the ‘third stooge’ gave our newly functional partners a dysfunctional dimension that would have been sorely lacking. Getz begins as a bad guy of sorts, a conman put under police protection having laundered a half-billion dollars in drug money. Our duo initially give him the derision he deserves, but they can’t help but fall for his dubious charms. He may be a crook, but he’s harmless underneath it all. He’s greedy, but he has heart in abundance, and when his life is in danger they genuinely care for his wellbeing, even letting him sound the siren like an excited schoolboy having escaped the clutches of the movie’s unscrupulous villains.
Pesci was 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 Getz, reducing him to something of a plot device as later sequels leaned towards action sitcom territory, but his initial integration was flawless and hugely rewarding, one of the reasons why many believe Lethal Weapon 2 to be the superior entry.
That’s not to say the Riggs and Murtaugh axis had already grown stale. Unlike most action sequels, Lethal Weapon 2 didn’t feel forced or repetitive. The duo’s original arc, from begrudging opposites to unbreakable brotherhood, was hugely satisfying, but there was just as much satisfaction to be derived from their growing friendship. The whole thing felt like a natural evolution, something that was very much a concerted effort on Donner’s part. Despite laying the foundations for a hugely successful franchise, the director 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 that way, instead viewing the film as a continuation of the characters’ lives with a narrative that evolved organically. In fact, it took several 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 “Everybody says you try and better yourself,” he would say. “I thought the action [in Lethal Weapon 2] 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… [the initial process] was a drag. It was a bore. 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 in Lethal Weapon 2, but so are the laughs. From the opening high-speed chase on a chaotic highway 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 the latter of those scenes, more than any other 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 by him, is the kind of genuinely touching moment most action fodder can only dream of, and despite the gravity of their situation, the humour never falters. Motormouth Leo inevitably 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 genre efforts fail to pull it off with half as much class.
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.
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 is needed to unearth that dormant dark side if the sequel was to pack a similar punch.
That trigger comes in the form of love interest Rika Van Den Haas (Patsy Kensit), who is unceremoniously bumped off by the most memorable bad guys in the entire series, an unconscionable duo who manage to trump Gary Busey’s albino mercenary Mr. Joshua and Mitchell Ryan’s General McAllister by some distance. The first is the diplomatically immune Arjen Rudd (Joss Ackland), a glorified smuggler who uses LA as his own personal playground. Ackland is suitably smug as the dead-eyed Rudd, the minister of affairs for the South African Consulate, the movie’s riff on apartheid, a system of legislation that upheld segregationist policies against non-white citizens of South Africa, playing on notions of racial solidarity that would become a staple of the franchise. Ackland also has the distinct honour of setting up one of the most iconic quips in genre history during a blood-soaked battle aboard the money-loaded Alba Varden, yet another indicator of the film’s exquisite grasp of gallows humour. The scene when Roger and Leo consult with an employee of Rudd about the possibility of moving to South Africa is one of the most priceless in the 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 hate-filled 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 precinct’s secondary characters are picked of in audaciously impudent fashion, we take it all rather personally. This is the same cheeky rabble who littered Roger with rubbers after seeing Traci Wolfe’s Rianne star in an ad for condoms, a touchy subject made even touchier when the big-mouthed builder who hangs around the house drinking beer admits to a crowded room, “It made me want to buy rubbers.” Despite their sparse screen time, every one of these characters feels like a long-time friend, a testament to the film’s screenplay and Donner’s level of investment in the Lethal Weapon universe.
Not only does the cold-blooded Vorstedt dispose of Rika, we find out he was responsible for the death of our protagonist’s wife, a somewhat contrived but shocking revelation that pushes Riggs back to the brink and reminds us of 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 loathsome as they come. It’s all routine for him, a job he derives a twisted sense of satisfaction from, but prodding Riggs like a caged animal is the kind of mistake you simply don’t come back from. Riggs is like a taper on a stick of dynamite we can’t wait to see blow, and when he finally lets rip, unloading on the roof of his trailer amid a dead-of-night assault, it’s absolutely breathless. Riggs may have lost some of his edge from the first movie, but after pulling a Houdini having been left for dead at the bottom of the ocean, the monster is exhumed, a darkness that may even surpass that of the original movie.
Donner was aware of the importance of his villains, and he went to great lengths to ensure that Lethal Weapon 2‘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 the darkness and rage, for all the 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 lost in the realms of slick, 21st century action movies, 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 they did it with a smile that went beyond acerbic self-knowing. Riggs and Murtaugh may be heroes of the superhuman variety, but we can relate to them and those in their inner circle on a distinctly human level.
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*!
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, even sharing the kind of heart-to-heart moment that transcends the macho boundaries of Rog and Martin’s relationship. Even daughter Rianne, once enamoured with Martin’s handsome façade 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. It’s an ever-growing family, both inside and outside of the Murtaugh homestead. From the always cynical but fundamentally decent Capt. Ed Murphy (Steve Kahan) to Mary Ellen Trainor’s perpetually concerned precinct psychologist Dr. Stephanie Woods, it all all feels so reassuringly familiar.
As the series evolved, Donner continued to focus on this family 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.