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, or in this case two lost loves. 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 Vorstedt 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. The fact that our duo welcomed a known criminal into their circle speaks volumes about their sense of loyalty and integrity. Riggs, in particular, realises the value and importance of fresh starts. Whatever people may think of Leo and however harshly they treat him on occasion, he is one of their own.
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 an integral 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 rounded, and for the cast and crew it seemed more like a welcome reunion than a day at the office. Rarely has action cinema been so fun and satisfying.
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 become 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 in Delores Hall’s Delores, a spirited yet overbearing plot device who lacks the characterisation to become a true part of the Lethal Weapon family, even if it is always fun to see Roger teased at the hands of the ever-playful and mischievous Riggs. Again, it’s handled rather excellently, almost effortlessly, but it all seems just a little tacked-on. We’ve finally entered into something approaching formula, and for a series that was once so high-tech and refreshing, it’s a somewhat sad, if inevitable development.
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, an irony our action duo are responsible for instilling, 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. Other than that Pesci is relegated to also-ran status. I suppose there’s only so far you can take the honorary detective angle utilised in part two, which is presumably why they turned the character into a gumshoe for the fourth instalment.
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, the death of his young gang member friend at the hands of an unsighted Roger tapping into the high-profile gangster rap movement and the emergence of the popular ‘hood’ movie. The Lethal Weapon movies have always incorporated racial themes for obvious reasons, but this time it flips the whole black and white thing on its head, burdening Roger with the corrupt black cop stigma the same year as the infamous Rodney King incident and the subsequent LA riots. Lethal Weapon 3 doesn’t necessarily highlight police corruption, but it blurs the lines between good and bad, humanising a character generally reserved for shooting practice, and it is here that the movie comes into its own. The scene where a drunken, self-loathing Roger falls into Riggs’ arms after swinging at him is Lethal Weapon at it’s most emotionally engaging. Is there another person in the world who could take a pop at Martin Riggs and live to tell the tale?
The rest of our secondary cast have their moment in the spotlight, but again it all feels a little tacked-on. There’s only so much you can do with a two hour screenplay with so many cast additions, but it doesn’t seem as natural or homely as previous instalments. Rianne didn’t have a huge part to play in Lethal Weapon 2 beyond the whole condom debacle, but it all transpired in a natural environment, as if the writers derived those moments from everyday situations. Here it feels more like the inclusion of characters are written in inorganically, as if they’re squeezed in to create that familiar vibe. It doesn’t all happen quite so seamlessly. Rianne’s featured spot (the fact that I’m using the term featured spot is indicative of the movie’s newly established sense of formula) arrives with a sitcom contrivance, Riggs conveniently happening upon her movie set and intercepting a fictional gunman appearing to have taken her hostage. Again, nicely delivered but a little forced.
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. All the winning elements are there, it’s all just a little neat and tidy.
But this is still Lethal Weapon, and despite a noticeable drop it is still one of the most exhilarating two hours of action/comedy 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 him, 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 by a hitman having been mistaken for Riggs, then the lovely Patsy Kensit bit the dust along with her dubious South African accent after a solitary date (surely he knew the risks going in when dealing with the likes of Joss Ackland’s cruel and self-satisfied Arjen Rudd and his band of killers). 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 scars 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). Despite Roger’s temporary bout of self-immolation, but it’s the white devil who they ultimately go in search of. Stuart Wilson’s Jack Travis, a former Former L.A.P.D. Lieutenant/land developer/arms dealer who has been utilising his insider knowledge to assassinate potential witness and obtain weapons via police arms dumps, is wonderfully sadistic, a sneering, sanctimonious slimeball who buries minor associates under the concrete foundations of his latest housing project for minor acts of theft. He even flaunts the act in front of another associate, exuding the kind of relish that tells us this is a loose cannon who takes pleasure in his work, a crook who needs putting down in the worst way. He makes every scene count double.
But asides from Travis, 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. There are some truly memorable action sequences, 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 the way only Lethal Weapon can. There is also a blistering fight sequence which sees Russo’s Cole kick some serious ass. Russo was such a big draw in her prime. Almost everything she starred in was a hit. And she’s easily the best addition to proceedings here, a third stooge who doesn’t need their ass saving every time they turn a corner.
Martin Riggs: When you retire, you’re not just retiring you, man! You’re retiring us!
Once Rog has overcome the shock of killing his son’s teenage friend, it balls to the wall, and it’s refreshing to see our duo switch roles and have Roger lead the charge. Much like Riggs had before him, Rog reaches for the bottle and sees no salvation, retreating to the shadows of a boat that represents retirement and is symbolic of a life well lived. His victim never got that opportunity, and this time Riggs provides the voice of reason. When Roger finally pulls himself together he is hungry for vengeance, seeking out the silent scourge who indirectly dug the grave for his son’s childhood friend and many more like him. When Rog, usually the calming yin to Riggs’ raging yang, finally blows its a startling development. Among all the formula, its a refreshing digression that adds depth to our duo and their ever-strengthening bond. This time it is Riggs peeping through his fingers wondering just how far his partner is willing to go, and we know exactly how he must feel. We’ve been with them through thick and thin from the very beginning. We feel Roger and his concerned friend’s pain. We feel directly involved.
Still, there’s something lacking here. Epic moments such as the epically staged desert shoot-out from Lethal Weapon or Riggs’ machine gun 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 stature of a Mr Joshua or Arjen Rudd. The finale is also a little underwhelming. It lacks the blockbuster appeal of the first two movies, doesn’t have the same drive or ambition. Their beef with Jack should be more personal all things considered, especially after the manipulative token death of a young rookie to armour-piercing bullets who Riggs feels responsible for, levelling the guilt-ridden playing field, but it never seems that way, and it almost seems perfunctory by the time our heroes limp through another death-defying showdown. The addition of Lorna to the final showdown doesn’t help. It adds emotional baggage but weakens the bond of our lead players.
Lethal Weapon 3 still a superbly made movie, and for the most part its issues are notable based on the near-flawlessness of the first two entries, which though less polished than Part 3 benefit for a rough and readiness lacking here. For genre pictures, it’s difficult to maintain such a high level of quality beyond the first sequel. Personalities 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 all 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 with every now and then, just to see how their lives are developing. This may be Hollywood at its most sparkling, but the characters and relationships resonate with us in a way that is far more real. We know this world and it’s a joy to be a part of. It is mainstream action cinema at its very finest.