It’s inferior as superior with Richard Donner’s franchise finale
The Lethal Weapon series seems to get better and worse with every instalment. That may sound like something of a paradox, but let me take a moment to explain. For those of you who grew up during the 80s and 90s, you’ll remember just how huge the franchise became thanks to filmmaker Richard Donner’s inspired blend of thrilling action and heartwarming comedy, the kind that put brains before brawn in a genre dominated by mindless violence and cute one-liners. Instead, the movie relied on wit and camaraderie, a commercially refined Hollywood upgrade of Walter Hill’s genre-popularising 48 Hrs. Lethal Weapon emerged from the action movie flames like fast-talking phoenix, and Donner was aware that he had something special on his hands, with characters and relationships that had plenty of mileage going forward. When it was time for the inevitable sequel, he wanted it to stand out from the crowd, calling initial screenplays for Lethal Weapon 2 “a drag” and “a bore”, and turning to screenwriter Jeffrey Boam for creative inspiration. He didn’t want the second instalment to be just a sequel, but rather an “action piece in a continuing saga in (the characters’) lives.”
Lethal Weapon gave us one of action cinema’s most endearing odd couples in family man Roger Murtaugh and widowed Vietnam Vet Martin Riggs. On the verge of a well-earned retirement, Roger was suddenly lumbered with a suicidal nut job, a development that only strengthened the notion that our loyal family man had grown too old for this shit. Riggs may have had nothing to lose, but his reputation as a man living on the edge threatened to tear up Roger’s fairy tale ending. But there was more to Mel Gibson’s wild-eyed facade than an apathetic loon looking to draw a psycho pension, and Rog allowed his new partner the chance to prove that fact, a decision that would result in one of the most memorable onscreen pairings in modern cinema. With Gibson and Glover it all seemed so natural. Camaraderie is key when it comes to buddy pictures, and you could see the natural glow on their faces whenever the cameras rolled. This was a relationship that clicked both onscreen and off, and it was a joy to behold.
As the series evolved so did its onscreen relationships. With each sequel Jeffrey Boam and co added a new face to the fray, and with Lethal Weapon 4 Channing Gibson followed suit, each helping to build the kind of extended family that made going to the cinema feel like a welcome home party. Asides from the movie’s central duo we had the Murtaugh family, Leo Getz, Lorna Cole, Captain Ed Murphy — the list of endearing characters just grew and grew, each instalment promising a new addition to our fictional family. Because of this the series was forced into formulaic territory by the time Lethal Weapon 3 went into production, and with the fourth instalment Donner gave us an action movie that in some ways resembled a sitcom, one that had run for so many seasons it was happy to exploit past glories, and for the most part fans were happy to be exploited. With Lethal Weapon 4, Donner was looking to tie up all the loose ends, and just like a sitcom attempting to bow out in the right way, it relied on a series of contrivances that allowed each character their moment in the spotlight.
Martin Riggs: I’ll draw his fire and you run for cover.
Roger Murtaugh: No. No, no, no. *I’ll* draw his fire and *you* run for cover.
Martin Riggs: What are you, out of your mind? You got a wife, kids. I got a lot less to lose than you.
As a result of this expansive evolution, the series would suffer in some respects, but in other ways it continued to improve. By the time Chris Rock’s Lee Butters was introduced as Rianne’s secret squeeze in Lethal Weapon 4, the movie had become somewhat bloated, secondary characters nipping in for the kind of nostalgic pops that felt just a little forced and underwhelming, to an extent cheapening characters who deserved more of our time. For a two-hour movie such a hefty load was hard to accommodate. Characterisation stalled, expositional soundbites were crammed in to push the plot along and the contrivances became almost necessary. This was less about ambivalence, more a case of supply and demand. New characters were necessary to keep things fresh, yet audiences longed to check in with characters who were no longer secondary in the traditional sense. Peripheral segments may have been squeezed in but they met fan expectation. A Lethal Weapon instalment without an appearance from Mary Ellen Trainor’s Dr. Stephanie Woods, however brief, just isn’t a Lethal Weapon movie in the purest sense. You only have to look at the likes of Beverly Hills Cop 3 to see the kind of damage character omissions can do to the legacy of a well-established franchise.
In a narrative sense, some of those characters were surplus to requirements, popping in the way celebrities tend to when a long-running show is growing light on ideas. Their appearance may be unnecessary, but there is still a loyal fan base to appease, the kind that has certain expectations, regardless of the consequences. There was an element of this in Lethal Weapon 3 too, which dipped its feet in the formulaic fires, a sub-narrative about gun crime providing the kind of catharsis that was central to the first two instalments. It felt somewhat manipulative this time around, an indication of where the series was heading. Lethal Weapon 4 embraces that formula wholeheartedly, is less concerned with the emotional core that made the original such a superlative action movie. I mean, the intention is there, but Murtaugh’s crusade to free the Hong family feels like Lethal Weapon trying to be Lethal Weapon. It no longer feels so effortless.
You can’t get more formulaic than Lethal Weapon 4, and to an outsider coming to the series late I can only imagine the degree of eyebrow-raising aimed at a movie that throws in a rubber shark and the kind of voice over narration that fills in the narrative blanks with the bare bones clarity of a children’s book, but for those of us schooled in the art of Gibson and Glover, the groundwork had already been laid. By 1998, the series was more than a decade old and was hardly likely to shake things up after riding such a successful wave for such a long period. The franchise was too long in the tooth for innovation, and who wanted that anyway? Lethal Weapon is a series that invites more of the same. Fans want action, humour and a healthy dose of familiarity, craving the kind of storyline closure many of us just couldn’t resist. With Lethal Weapon 3 there was an element of disappointment at seeing such an obvious decline, but the fourth instalment is a little more shameless about it all, and is in some ways easier to swallow.
Lethal Weapon 4 is so familiar in its structure that we know exactly what is coming. There are no longer any real surprises in store, but it’s easy to love just the same. All we need is a marquee bad guy, some exhilarating set-pieces and the kind of camaraderie we’re in on from the ground floor up. Yes, it may feel bloated and predictable and even annoying on occasion, the movie’s humour just a little bit forced in places, but as fans of the series we can let those moments slide. The opening sequence is a masterclass of formula, and arguably the most enjoyable (and predictable) of the entire series. In a scene reminiscent of a Grand Theft Auto video game, a masked man wreaks havoc on a dubiously deserted street with a flamethrower as our aging heroes manically discuss their personal lives and what each of them have to lose in their advancing years. Murtaugh is about to be become a grandfather, so Riggs naturally offers to enter the ring of fire. But then a revelation: Lorna is pregnant too; Riggs finally has a family to call his own. All that’s missing is the theme from Friends.
Roger Murtaugh: Since I met Riggs, I’ve had my house destroyed, my car wrecked, and now my BOAT SUNK. What’s left?
Leo Getz: I think that’s about it.
Though the seemingly ageless Danny Glover looks as young (or as old) as he ever has, he was pushing fifty by the time Lethal Weapon 4 came around, and at only six years his junior Mel Gibson was no spring chicken either. In 2019, the likes of Liam Neeson are still churning out action movies in their late 60s, but at the time many questioned whether Lethal Weapon 4 was a sequel too far, and to a degree it feels unnecessary, as though Donner and co made the movie to provide closure for themselves. The filmmaker was no doubt aware of this, and the movie continues on the self-reflexive route that began in the previous instalment, presenting Gibson as a ‘dinosaur’ as the ever endearing Captain Ed Murphy puts it. There’s still some fight left in the old dogs, but when Rog suggests that his partner is finally getting ‘too old for this shit’ too, it feels like we’ve finally come full circle.
In order to highlight this without detracting from our heroes, a genuine badass was needed, and in Jet Li’s martial arts expert Wah Sing Ku, we have arguably the most fearsome and memorable villain in the series, one who tests our ageing tag-team to the limit in a bone-crunching final battle of monumental proportions. There is also a wonderful home invasion scene at the ill-fated Murtaugh homestead which exhibits Li’s incredible, lightning-quick skills and fearsome arrogance, though you have to question how the Murtaughs can sleep in the same house every night after all that has happened to them. I mean, Rog must have some pretty radical home insurance coverage given his track record. As a pure action experience, Lethal Weapon 4 is still right up there with the best of them. As well as that final confrontation, there’s a spectacular opening sequence on a boat, a Chinatown chase that highlights our protagonists’ waning abilities and a breathtaking high-speed highway pursuit that is an absolute masterclass in action cinema, one that makes you long for those pre-CGI days of yore. After a decade of strapping the camera to his shoulder like a rocket launcher, Donner is as sharp as ever.
The movie’s biggest obstacle is its overabundance of characters and how to accommodate them — no mean feat for a film whose ultimate goal is to wrap the franchise in a neat little package. This would become the series conundrum: how to freshen the fold while doing continued justice to characters who had become so dear to our hearts. Lethal Weapon 3 was the first to flounder, introducing the very welcome and necessary Lorna (Rene Russo) and the largely unnecessary Delores (Delores Hall). The first was a character who impacted the arc of the movie’s protagonist, the second providing an overbearing shot of comic relief to a movie already suffering from an overabundance of it. Both had a negative effect on the much loved Leo Getz (Joe Pesci), who came across as a necessary inconvenience before the screenplay shipped him off to the emergency room for what was essentially a supplementary appearance. All of those characters were handled as well as they could have been given their diminishing roles, but their contributions seemed superfluous based on the sheer magnitude of cast members.
Lethal Weapon 4 goes one step further in this regard. Russo is again front and centre, reducing many of those earlier characters to bit-part players. Still, her lion’s share of the limelight is more than justified, and she and Gibson have incredible chemistry as they toil with their relationship status and a pregnancy that throws a spanner in the works. It’s easy to see why Russo was such a huge box office draw during her mainstream run. As if the screenplay wasn’t bloated enough, there’s also the introduction of the aforementioned Hongs, a family of Chinese immigrants smuggled into the country by Uncle Benny and his gang of Triad conspirators. The Lethal Weapon series has always had something of a social conscience, and echoes of the slave trade speak to Roger’s own lineage in a welcome sub-narrative that also succeeds in putting most of the Murtaugh family firmly in the shadows. Once again, it’s all a bit of a double-edged sword.
Leo Getz: Froggy was my friend and I really loved him, and I took him everywhere with me, and I was riding on my bike one day and he jumped out of the box, and uh, I ran him over with the back tire. I killed him. I was really heartbroken. Really, he was my best friend in the whole world; the only thing I ever loved. And then I met you and Roger, and you guys really looked after me a lot more then you had to.
Martin Riggs: Geez, we’re terrible to you, Leo.
Leo Getz: No no, it’s okay, it’s okay. You are my family. You are my friends. You are not better friends than Froggy. You’re just different, and, uh, I just thought that *maybe* that might be relevant.
The most notable new entry is Chris Rock, who brings his world class stand-up act to the silver screen as the mouthy and socially aware detective Lee Butters. In one sense, he’s a welcome addition. His comedy fits the bill in that it speaks to Riggs and Murtaugh’s old dog status, and as the father to Rianne’s child he becomes a central component of the main narrative, but the movie is already chocked-full of comic relief, particularly with Leo’s amped-up caricature devouring every scene. Pesci would receive a Golden Raspberry Nomination for Supporting Actor for his third turn as the smart-mouthed, former crook-turned-sidekick. Personally, I enjoyed his participation more here than I did his previous effort. His comedy act is still grating to a degree, perhaps even more so, but ultimately his character gets the ending he deserves thanks to a touching moment with Riggs at his wife’s grave as he contemplates finally tying the knot with Lorna. Being reduced to a colourful sideshow may have damaged his character to a large extent, but his suitably absurd, yet relevant frog analogy salvages his integrity and importance to the franchise as a whole. All he ever wanted was acceptance, and finally he earns the right to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his biggest detractor.
In the end, everyone has their moment. Yes, it’s all a little rushed and predictable, but anything less would have left too many unanswered questions for an audience expecting answers. How cruel it would have been to not have Steve Kahan’s Captain Murphy as part of the final scene, even if his appearance has him double-up as a contrived plot device bearing news of a happy ending for the suddenly peripheral Hongs. It may be a somewhat convenient conclusion to the franchise, but deep down it was the one we all longed for. Ultimately, it’s those elements of family and camaraderie that set the series apart. Donner was more than aware of Lethal Weapon’s nostalgic power, and an end credits sequence featuring a series of on and off-set photos captures that essence quite beautifully. As we soak up the sentimentality, it’s almost like flipping through one’s own family album. We remember the good times and the bad, the comedy and tragedy, the fantastic scenarios and set-pieces orchestrated by those family members behind the scenes who we don’t recognise, those who were just as responsible for the magic. It’s a fitting bow for a groundbreaking action series that has heart and soul in abundance.