It’s business as usual for one of cinema’s best loved action duos
When it comes to onscreen action pairings, it’s hard to look beyond Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. Buoyed by Shane Black’s beautifully balanced screenplay and director Richard Donner’s keen eye for spectacular set-pieces, Lethal Weapon was a huge leap forward in the buddy cop stakes, forging characters who would become like family as the series evolved. The original movie featured your typical odd couple paradigm: a level-headed family man, days away from retirement, is shackled by a hot-headed Vietnam vet caught between a psycho pension and all-out suicide. Mel Gibson would bring a blue-eyed charm to proceedings that elevated the movie above the realms of musclebound action fodder, and his burgeoning relationship with Danny Glover, both onscreen and off, would help forge one of the most popular franchises of the era.
It would take two years for the first sequel to emerge, and for many Lethal Weapon 2 is just as good as the original. While Riggs had overcome the kind of suicidal feelings that gave the character a raw unpredictability, vengeance would rear itself in the form of Derrick O’Conner’s smug South African hitman, Pieter Vorstedt, rekindling the former wildman’s dark passion for his lost love. The fact that the thug who killed his wife happens to show up in Riggs’ backyard may have possessed just a smidgen of sequel contrivance, but the newly settled super cop and all round hardman had a reason to reignite his reputation as a Lethal Weapon. Camaraderie is all well and good, but action movies need an edge, one the ‘80s incarnation of Riggs had in abundance.
More than anything, Lethal Weapon 2 expanded on the family element introduced so wonderfully in the first movie. Riggs was already a surrogate member of the Murtaugh homestead, but in the first sequel we see him hang around the house as if it were his own, discussing personal issues with Murtaugh matriarch Trish while she does his laundry and becoming an extra shoulder to lean on for the likes of the once smitten Rianne (Traci Wolfe), and when the Murtaughs are terrorised by Hans and his cronies in the dead of night, Riggs takes it personally. Roger’s family are now his by extension. Lethal Weapon 2 also gave us the much welcome addition of Joe Pesci’s money laundering shyster Leo Getz. In some ways, he took Riggs’ place as the bad sheep turning over a new leaf, and Pesci’s wonderful comic ability allowed him to slip into the groove without missing a beat, becoming the missing part to their Three Stooges act as Riggs assumed the role of reluctant friend.
Roger Murtaugh: I’m too old for this shit!
By the time Lethal Weapon 3 cruised into existence, the whole operation fit like a silken glove. Gibson and Glover were so in tune with one another they could have read from the phone book and still charmed the pants off an audience who felt they were a part of the onscreen dynamic. Such was the groundwork laid in terms of characterisation that even minor characters were familiar and very little was needed to warm the cockles as we watched the movie’s extended family grow into different stages of their lives. If the first two instalments felt a little rough and ready, by now all those edges had been smoothed, and for the cast and crew it seemed more like a welcome reunion than a day at the office.
But such an achievement comes with a downside. Whenever something peaks creatively, the only way is down, regardless of how well the material is handled. In many ways, it is more about the journey than the end product, and though Lethal Weapon 3 throws a couple of new additions our way it all seems just a little bloated and formulaic at times. We get exactly what we pay to see, but even with everyone on top form you can’t help but feel just a little jaded, like we’ve lost something that we’ll never get back.
The movie opens with a glorified comedy sketch as Riggs and Rog botch a bomb disposal threat with typically catastrophic consequences. It’s beautifully delivered but sets the tone for what lies ahead, giving us just a touch of what the fourth instalment would later be guilty of. It doesn’t enter action sitcom territory quite yet, but you can sense it going that way, particularly when our two heroes are busted down to patrolmen for their latest act of unprofessionalism, a plot development which gives the movie an opening for yet another comedy character Delores, a spirited yet overbearing plot device who lacks the characterisation to become a true part of the Lethal Weapon family. Again, it’s handled beautifully, but it all seems just a little tacked-on.
Perhaps the movie’s biggest failure is its misuse of the returning Joe Pesci, who is treated like a passenger for the most part, relegated to a hospital ward for the majority of the second act like a toddler shipped off to nursery school. Things begin well enough as a newly law-abiding Leo attempts to sell Roger’s house but fails thanks to his newfound honesty, informing potential buyers of the numerous acts of destruction brought upon the homestead thanks to the owner’s propensity to piss off some of the most audacious criminals ever to grace the mean streets of Los Angeles. It’s a cute angle, shining a self-reflexive light on the growing absurdity of it all, and a wise move for a sequel that is expected to offer more of the same.
Roger Murtaugh: I got 8 days to my retirement, and I will NOT make a stupid mistake!
Martin Riggs: Look, there is no bomb in that building! I will bet vital parts of my anatomy to the fact! Trust me, okay? Trust me!
Roger Murtaugh: That’s usually my first mistake!
In this regard, an added emphasis on comedy was probably the right movie, but it does cheapen affairs. Beyond that opening scene, Leo is a peripheral figure, returning for the odd moment of comic relief almost as a chore, and fails to play a part in the movie’s central narrative. The same can be said for the Murtaugh family. Nick has something of an influence on proceedings, but the rest only have fleeting moments, and Rianne’s featured spot arrives with that sitcom contrivance, Riggs conveniently happening upon her movie set and intercepting a fictional gunman appearing to have taken her hostage. Again, nicely delivered but rather formulaic.
In fact, much of Lethal Weapon 3 transpires in the same way. So prescribed are some of the movie’s key events that our favourite cop duo no longer have to be assigned to a case, high-speed car chases and elaborate crime plots fall squarely in their laps as if the fate of the entire crime world is determined by their very existence. They stumble upon the film’s central narrative after being busted down to patrolmen. They spot a gun deal going down while relaxing at a burger stall, and the kid Roger is forced to gun down just happens to be Nick’s friend who we were introduced to earlier in the movie as a newly recruited gang member. They are no longer two men plunged into a situation. Those situations cater to them, and though all the winning elements are there, it’s all just a little neat and tidy.
But this is still Lethal Weapon, and in spite of a noticeable drop it is still one of the most exhilarating two hours of action you are ever likely to witness. In many ways, the Martin Riggs character is treading creative middle-age, giving up the cigarettes for dog biscuits and finally finding his female match in Lorna Cole, an internal affairs outsider with a knack for kicking ass. Lucky for her, since Riggs hasn’t had the best track record with women up until this point – or, more accurately, they haven’t had the best luck on his watch. To put it bluntly, Riggs has the touch of death when it comes to the opposite sex. First his wife was bumped off having been mistaken for him, and then the lovely Patsy Kensit bit the dust along with her dubious South African accent after a solitary date. Riggs needs someone with eyes in the back of their head and a history of violence, and in Lorna he finds just that, a fact punctuated by one of the most memorable scenes in the series when she and Riggs compare bullet wounds in what is tantamount to foreplay for a duo up to their necks in bad guys.
Lethal Weapon 3 isn’t all laughs. Sobering festive suicides and home invasion may be a thing of the past, but the movie does get serious during the second act after Rog Commits the murder to end all murders, one that awakens us from the kind of anonymous killing sprees that audiences passively shrug off (bad guys have families too, fellers). Released in 1992, Lethal Weapon 3 was slap-bang in the middle of an emerging sub-genre known as the ‘hood movie’. Sparked by inner city discrimination, gansta rap and John Singleton’s revelatory gangland allegory Boyz n the Hood, it would highlight police corruption while giving a voice to those who had never been portrayed as victims. Lethal Weapon 3 doesn’t necessarily highlight police corruption, but it blurs the lines between bad and good, humanising a character generally reserved for shooting practice, and it is here that the movie comes into its own.
Martin Riggs: When you retire, you’re not just retiring you, man! You’re retiring us!
The shooting leaves a usually stable Rog inconsolable. Much like Riggs had before him, he reaches for the bottle and sees no salvation, retreating to the shadows of the boat that represents retirement and is symbolic of a life well lived. His victim never got that opportunity, and this times Riggs provides the voice of reason in a heartfelt moment that shows the series at its very best. When Roger finally pulls himself together he is hungry for vengeance, seeking out the white devil who dug the grave for his son’s childhood friend. Rog blows like never before, and this time it is Riggs peeping through his fingers wondering just how far his partner is willing to go.
The bad guy in question is Jack Travis, a former cop who one day up and vanished, and who is looking to cash-in on the law’s stash of confiscated weapons. Again, it’s all a bit low-key and underdeveloped – exquisitely executed, but in need of a little fleshing out at the expense of the movie’s superfluous comedy output. Actor Stuart Wilson is a revelation as the sneering, sanctimonious slimeball with the sadistic streak, making every scene count double. There are also some memorable action sequences on offer here, especially a high-speed chase that sees Riggs careen over the edge of an unfinished stretch of highway on a confiscated police bike, a moment which gets the balance of thrills, spills and humour right in a way that only Lethal Weapon can.
Still, there’s something lacking here. Epic moments such as the desert shoot-out from Lethal Weapon or Riggs’ machine gun led retaliation atop his trailer are painfully absent, and as good as the Travis character is his deeds seem just a little low-key, his character lacking the importance of a Mr Joshua or Arjen Rudd. The finale is also a little underwhelming. It lacks the epic, blockbuster appeal of the first two movies, and almost seems perfunctory by the time our heroes limp through another death-defying showdown.
It’s still a superbly made movie, and for the most part its issues are notable based on the success of the first two entries. For genre pictures, it’s difficult to maintain such a high level of quality beyond the first sequel. Characters become overbearing, narratives become predictable, and when characters we cherish are forced to repeat past mistakes it jeopardises their integrity. But as much of the same as it is, that’s not really the case with Lethal Weapon 3. We know what we’re in for, and it’s delivered with typical aplomb. It may be lacking to some degree, but in the end you leave with a big old smile on your face. These are characters that we want to check in on every now and again just to see how their lives are developing. This may be Hollywood at its most sparkling and grandiose, but the characters and relationships resonate with us in a way that is real. We know this world and it’s a joy to be a part of. It is mainstream action cinema at its very finest.