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 Donner and his cast hadn’t lost a beat in the interim. In fact, many consider Lethal Weapon 2 to be just as good, if not better than 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 a lost love, or in this case two lost loves. The fact that the thug who killed his wife happened 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 the film’s titular threat. 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, Riggs takes it all rather personally. Roger’s family are now his, and ours, 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 seamlessly into the groove, 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 the character on occasion, he is one of their own.
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!
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 have 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 franchise journey than the latest instalment, 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, with thrilling action sequences, dead-on camaraderie and the kind of energy we’ve come to expect from the series, but even with everyone on top form, you can’t help but feel just a little jaded, like we’ve lost something 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 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. It’s always fun to see Roger teased at the hands of the ever-mischievous Riggs, but it all feels just a little tacked-on, like we’re slipping just a little too comfortably into the realms of formula. For a series that was once so innovative and high-tech, it’s a somewhat ominous, if inevitable development.
Perhaps the movie’s biggest failure, something the introduction of Delores no doubt contributes to, is its misuse of the returning Joe Pesci. This time around, the Leo character 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. This is an irony our action duo are responsible for instilling, shining a self-reflexive light on the growing absurdity of it all — a wise move for a sequel that is expected to offer more of the same — but it’s all downhill from there for Pesci. 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 bumbling gumshoe for the fourth instalment, a role that would earn the actor a Razzie award for Worst Supporting Actor.
The Murtaugh family also take something of a backseat thanks to our ever-expanding cast, which proves a tricky balancing act at times. A third home invasion in as many movies, though instilling that element of jeopardy that made the family integral, would have been overkill in anyone’s book, but it doesn’t feel quite as natural or as homely this time around when it comes to Roger’s nearest and dearest. 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’s a little less organic at times. Rianne’s featured spot arrives with an almost sitcom contrivance, Riggs conveniently happening upon her movie set and intercepting a fictional gunman appearing to have taken her hostage. In fact, much of Lethal Weapon 3 transpires in this 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.
Lethal Weapon 3‘s main new addition is a much more welcome one, even if it does serve to further domesticise Gibson’s unpredictable warrior. Interestingly, earlier drafts of the screenplay were very different, Rene Russo’s feisty, internal affairs love interest Lorna Cole originally conceived as a man who almost matched Riggs in the crazy stakes. Instead, Riggs’ love interest came in the form of Rianne, she and Riggs having an affair right under Roger’s nose, which is why the film features moments in which Rog suspects there’s something going on between the two. Regardless of Rianne’s almost superfluous input as a consequence, this would have been a bad move for all involved. An attraction had been teased before, but with Riggs’ role as extended family member having already been established, such a development would have been almost incestuous, particularly considering their age gap. It would have completely sabotaged the series dynamic.
Martin Riggs: Look, that kid was a killer, alright? That wasn’t a Tinker Toy in his hand, that was a machine pistol with twin carbies and all the trimmings, man! He would’ve drilled you, me, anybody that came along, alright? You had no choice.
Roger Murtaugh: Oh no, it didn’t happen to you, Riggs, it happened to me! It happened to me! I killed that kid, I killed that boy. Oh yeah, oh you killed a lot of people, you kill a fuckin’ lot of people. You ever kill a baby?
Martin Riggs: You selfish…
Roger Murtaugh: You got ice in your veins. You don’t kill a boy like Nick.
Martin Riggs: You selfish bastard! You selfish bastard, you’re just thinking about yourself! What about me? We’re partners, we are partners. What happens to you, happens to me.
Taking Rianne’s place in the spotlight is Roger’s maturing son, Nick, who receives a rather hefty narrative promotion at a time when ‘hood movies’ were all the rage. The Lethal Weapon series was always racially aware, be it Roger’s equal billing, protestations against apartheid or minority trafficking and slavery. Here they target gang culture and the white-collared devil lurking behind the scenes, namely Stuart Wilson’s Jack Travis, a former Former L.A.P.D. Lieutenant/land developer/arms dealer who utilises his insider knowledge to assassinate a potential witness and obtain weapons via police arms dumps. While on lunch break at a burger joint, our ever-ready duo stumble upon a gun deal precipitated by Travis and return fire, and Rog is forced to gun down Nick’s teenage friend and newly-recruited gang member, Darryl. It’s a shocking, if somewhat predictable development, one that immediately breathes new life into proceedings.
It’s difficult to gauge whether this was a case of good or bad timing. The movie’s themes were certainly prevalent in the wake of films such as John Singleton’s powerful inner-city social drama Boyz N the Hood, but Lethal Weapon 3 was released less than a month after the infamous LA Riots, a month-long rebellion against racial discrimination that set the California streets ablaze, resulting in 63 deaths, 2,383 injuries and 12,000 arrests (the movie was shot between October ’91 and January ’92). This kind of smash-mouth action formula may have seemed a little heavy-handed, dare I say dated as a consequence. The LA Riots helped trigger something of a tonal shift in action movies, the vigilante overindulgence of the 1980s becoming passé in an increasingly vocal and enlightened society led by the likes of Wesley Snipes. It was a new day, and Lethal Weapon seemed to fit more comfortably with the overblown opulence of a decade whose characters were generally without consequence.
Lethal Weapon 3‘s most inspired move, the one that prevents it from falling into the realms of overfamiliarity, is its decision to have Riggs and Murtaugh switch roles. We’ve been here before, but this time Rog gets the chance to play the raging yin to Riggs’ concerned yang, embarking on a very personal vendetta having been tarred with the corrupt black cop stigma redolent of the Rodney King incident. Lethal Weapon 3 doesn’t directly highlight police corruption, but it blurs the lines between good and bad. In Daryll, it humanises a character generally reserved for shooting practice, dehumanising an ex-cop knee-deep in corruption, and it is here where the movie comes into its own.
The scene in which a self-loathing Roger falls into Riggs’ arms is Lethal Weapon at it’s most emotionally engaging. Like Riggs before him, Rog sees no salvation and reaches for the bottle, retreating into the shadows of a boat that represents retirement and is symbolic of a life well lived. When Roger finally blows, seeking out the silent scourge who indirectly dug the grave of his son’s childhood friend and many more like him, it’s a startling development, 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 will go, and he can fully sympathise through experience, supporting Roger’s actions regardless of the moral implications. Riggs doesn’t judge, and there’s certainly no ill will following the kind of confrontation that underpins every tragedy. Is there another person in the world who could have taken a pop at Martin Riggs and lived to tell the tale?
It’s a pretty dark angle for a movie with mostly comedic aspirations, but it’s those comedic elements that ultimately dominate. It’s hard to resist the charms of Gibson and Glover, and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, who was actually responsible for significant, uncredited rewrites of Shane Black’s original Lethal Weapon screenplay, knows the material as well as Donner, but the back-and-forth banter can be a little overbearing at times, so fast and relentless that some of the dialogue threatens to overlap. There’s almost too much enthusiasm on occasion, like they’re trying a little too hard to top something that has already peaked.
This is mostly prevalent when Russo is added to the fray. She and Gibson have wonderful chemistry (Russo seems to have wonderful chemistry with just about anyone), but Riggs and Murtaugh are animated enough by themselves, and some of those three-way interactions really pile it on. Some of the scenes featuring Gibson and Russo are pure magic, especially the iconic moment when the two of them compare wounds as sexual tension reaches almost combustible levels, but Lorna also serves to emasculate Riggs to some extent. It’s a natural development for the series, but Riggs works best as the troubled singleton with a dark edge, a decidedly 80s trait that is almost completely absent here.
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. Until now, Riggs hasn’t exactly had the best track record with women; 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). Russo’s independent bad ass puts an end to that curse. She may be a leap forward for secondary female characters in action movies, but it’s a step back for Riggs in terms of mystique and pure magnetism.
Martin Riggs: When you retire, you’re not just retiring you, man! You’re retiring us!
The movie’s finale is also something of a damp squib, and easily the most underwhelming in the series. With Roger’s role reversal having already played out and Riggs once again taking centre stage, it’s all very much old hat. It feels rushed and anticlimactic and is lacking that certain spark. Stuart is wonderfully sadistic as Travis, a sneering, sanctimonious slimeball who buries two-bit lackeys under the 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 forges a loose cannon who takes pleasure in his work, a crook who needs putting down in the worst way imaginable. His part may pale to the likes of Rudd, but the actor makes every scene count double.
Despite a notable dip in quality, Lethal Weapon 3 is still an utterly riveting ride for the most part. As you’d expect from a Donner production, 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 captures that balance of thrills, spills and humour in the way only Lethal Weapon can. There’s also a blistering fight sequence in which Russo’s Cole kicks some serious ass at the behest of her drooling beau. Russo was such a draw in her prime. Almost everything she starred in was a hit, and she once again shines in the role of a no-nonsense bad ass coerced into breaking protocol. It doesn’t take long for her to become one of the gang.
Still, I can’t help but feel like there’s something amiss here. Thanks in no small part to its subdued finale, the film lacks the blockbuster appeal of its predecessors, has lost some of the cutting edge which 1987’s Lethal Weapon and its mismatched duo had in abundance. As wonderful as Wilson is, the Travis character also comes across as a bit low-key. Their final face-off should be a bit 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 just doesn’t pan-out that way. In fact, events almost seem perfunctory by the time our heroes limp through another death-defying showdown. The addition of Lorna doesn’t help. Her near-fatal wounding adds emotional baggage but weakens the bond of our lead players. In some ways, it’s a case of evolution as devolution.
Lethal Weapon 3 is still a superbly crafted movie, and for the most part its issues are notable based on the near-flawlessness of the first two entries, which though less polished benefit from a rough and readiness sorely missing here. Sometimes it’s like Lethal Weapon trying to be Lethal Weapon. It’s a fabulous imitation, but a creative line has been crossed. 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 into familiar situations, it jeopardises their integrity. But as immodest as it can sometimes be, that’s not really the case with Lethal Weapon 3. We know what we’re in for, and for the most part we’re happy to overlook those foibles. This may be Hollywood at its slickest and most complacent, but the characters and relationships resonate with us in a way that is much more real. We know this world and it’s a joy to be a part of. It is action cinema at its very finest.