It’s inferior as superior with Richard Donner’s franchise finale
The Lethal Weapon series seems to get better and worse with each 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 acerbic 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 a fast-talking phoenix. Donner was aware 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 eventually turning to screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, who had previously assisted Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon script with uncredited re-writes, for creative inspiration. Donner 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, the peace of mind he’d finally afforded his family suddenly in jeopardy.
Thankfully, it didn’t turn out that way. There was more to Mel Gibson’s wild-eyed façade than an apathetic loon looking to draw a psycho pension, and Rog allowed his new partner the chance to prove it, leading to a lifelong friendship both onscreen and off. 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. It was a joy to be a part of.
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 the series evolved so did that relationship, an evolution that extended to an ever-growing cast of lovable characters. With each sequel Jeffrey Boam and co added a new face to the fray, and with Lethal Weapon 4 Channing Gibson followed suit, resulting in 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 just grew and grew. Whenever a new instalment was released, it was like checking in with old friends with the possibility of new friends on the horizon.
There was a downside. The sheer magnitude of characters meant that screen time became increasingly precious. As a result, the series was already edging towards formulaic convenience by the time Lethal Weapon 3 arrived, 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 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.
Fans of the Lethal Weapon series will generally note a marked decline after Lethal Weapon 2. The original Lethal Weapon was more a straight-up action thriller which happened to stumble upon pure magic. Lethal Weapon 2 revelled in that magic, adding crook-with-a-heart Leo Getz to the fray and utilising the three stooges paradigm that would become a running theme in the series. By making Riggs something of a domesticated animal, Lethal Weapon 2 lacked a little of the original’s edge. That animal was ultimately reawakened following the death of love interest Rika van den Haas and a somewhat convenient revelation about Riggs’ deceased wife, but it was impossible to recapture that initial mystique, or the catharsis of Riggs and Murtaugh’s original relationship arc.
But Lethal Weapon 2, arguably the best entry in the series, made up for it in other ways. For one thing, there was still plenty to explore in regards to our deadly duo’s newfound brotherhood. It was rewarding to see their relationship forged, but just as satisfying to see it blossom, a fact beautifully encapsulated during the film’s infamous bomb-on-a-toilet scene, a masterclass of comedy and heartfelt drama that put the majority of action movies to shame. We’d been here before, but in many ways the two had more to lose this time around. They had each other.
The addition of Rene Russo’s Lorna Cole freshened things just enough for Lethal Weapon 3. Riggs was still without a life partner thanks to an incredible run of bad luck in the love department (though it should be noted that he did make his own luck to some degree). Trilogies had also become something of a prerequisite by the early 90s, and there was enough unfinished business to warrant a third outing. The main issue was Riggs and Rog treading old ground, but the film was smart enough to pull off a formula switcheroo, a sub-narrative about inner-city gun crime allowing Rog the chance to finally play bad cop. There was still an element of overfamiliarity, an uninspired finale feeling just a little tacked-on and unearned, but it was a fine action movie with some truly memorable scenes, even if it did fall short of its predecessor’s immaculate standards. Lethal Weapon 3 felt like a new paint job for the same super-charged hot rod. It still had appeal, but the series, just like its characters, had embraced the routines of middle age.
Lethal Weapon 4 embraces that routine even more wholeheartedly, is less concerned with the emotional core that made the original such a superlative action movie. The intention is there, but Murtaugh’s crusade to free the Hong family from the clutches of the ruthless Uncle Benny and the Triad mafia feels like Lethal Weapon trying to be Lethal Weapon. It no longer seems so effortless.
You have to remember, this was a whole six years after Lethal Weapon 3, which was a long time back then for a sequel featuring the same characters in like-for-like situations, one of whom admitting to be getting too old for this shit more than a decade prior. The genre has changed dramatically since then, Liam Neeson beginning his decade-long action career at the ripe old age of 55, but at 42 and 52, respectively, Gibson and Glover were considered much too old back in the late 90s. Prior to its release, the belated fourth instalment was mooted as a step too far in many corners.
Capt. Ed Murphy: We’re dinosaurs headed for extinction.
Martin Riggs: Speak for yourself…
Capt. Ed Murphy: Gotta make way for the NEW-IMPROVED police department; guys with guns and psychology degrees, like Butters, out there.
Martin Riggs: Biter has a psychology degree?
Roger Murtaugh: More like a PSYCHO degree.
Capt. Ed Murphy: Ah, hell, I got nothin’ against it; times have gotta change. Hey, I almost got shot by a hot-rodder with a zip gun; that’s how far back I go.
Donner and his writing team were more than aware of this, and this time it is Riggs who finally admits to getting just a little long in the tooth after having his ass handed to him in a training bout with a young pugilist. Murtaugh is practically entering geriatric territory, carelessly dropping his gun and letting off a round in the locker room, Riggs covering for him with a faux display of his legendary short fuse temperament. It’s a little forced, but a touching moment nonetheless. In fact, there are plenty of touching moments in Lethal Weapon 4. It just lacks that natural air, everything a little too neat and convenient as we race towards a series of picture book resolutions. The two are finally coming to terms with their advancing years, Riggs is on the verge of settling down with the increasingly maternal Lorna, and when Rog finally suggests that maybe his partner is getting ‘too old for this shit’ too, it feels like we’ve finally come full circle.
Despite a self-reflexive acknowledgement that a third sequel is pushing it just a bit, Lethal Weapon 4 features some of the most breathtaking action sequences in the entire series, particularly a high-speed chase which sees a relentless Riggs tailing a bad guy at all costs, practically water-skiing on a table attached to the back of a lorry on a busy highway. It’s a little beyond the realms of plausibility, but what a ride! There is also the movie’s blistering opening sequence, an immediate reminder of what we’ve been missing. The whole fiasco is pepped up on expositional steroids, an indicator of the film’s tone going forward, but after a half-decade hiatus they haven’t lost a step, particularly when it comes to causing millions in damages to public property. In a scene reminiscent of a Grand Theft Auto video game, a masked man wreaks havoc with a flamethrower as our aging heroes manically discuss their personal lives and what each of them has 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.
Lethal Weapon 4 ups the ante in true sequel fashion by presenting our duo with their toughest opponent to date, and in martial arts superstar Jet-Li, the movie reveals its trump card. There is a wonderful home invasion scene at the ill-fated Murtaugh homestead which exhibits Li’s incredible, lightning-quick skills and fearsome arrogance (like the moment when he glibly brushes a laser sight off his chest like a speck of dust), though you have to question how the Murtaughs can sleep in the same house every night after everything they’ve been subjected to. Rog must have some pretty radical home insurance given his track record with deadly intruders.
Li adds the kind of physical energy and flair that is otherwise lacking, and when our two heroes form a tag-team for the film’s bone-crunching finale, it’s stunningly executed, one of several instances where Donner’s grasp on such a distinct formula pays dividends. Grossly outmatched even with a one-man advantage, Riggs and Rog agree to one last showdown when they simply could have walked away. Their taste for the job may be waning, but old habits die hard, and there’s still some bite in the old dogs yet. It’s a stunning final fling crammed with action, comedy and catharsis. We may have been here before, many times over, but by now Donner has this kind of set-piece down to a fine art, and our sense of déjà vu is laced with cute, self-aware irony. In a film that occasionally falters, it’s a pitch-perfect send-off, but the problems lie elsewhere.
For a two-hour movie, the sheer abundance of characters crammed into Lethal Weapon 4 are hard to accommodate. Lethal Weapon 3 had already tread problematic territory in that regard, but instead of distilling it down to the essential characters for our series conclusion, it continues to pile on the fresh faces. By now it has all become just a little bloated, secondary characters nipping in for the kind of nostalgic pops that feel just a little forced and underwhelming. It doesn’t necessarily feel half-assed, just a little too comfortable, like a relationship that has transcended hot-bloodied attraction and settled in the warm, almost complacent realms of familiarity. Characterisation stalls, expositional soundbites are crammed in to push the plot along, and as a result the contrivances become almost necessary.
Chris Rock’s Lee Butters, in particular, seems a tad superfluous. Rock is a world class stand-up act, but such a big personality vying for onscreen attention amid so much tomfoolery proves overkill, the running gag surrounding his and Rianne’s relationship quickly wearing thin. He’s there solely for the zingers too, reeling off excerpts from his hugely popular stand-up act in an attempt to establish an extra degree of dynamism. There’s no real focus on his relationship with Roger’s first-born, which is a shame because Rock is a fine actor who is more than capable of injecting a little drama. Though Rianne is central to one of the film’s main sub-narratives, we hardly see her. In fact, the entire Murtaugh family are almost totally peripheral in terms of screen time, more so than in the previous film. We’ve gone as far as we can go without promoting them all to headliners with fleshed-out narratives, and as a consequence everything seems just a little rushed and lacking the necessary restraint.
Pesci’s third stooge suffers most of all, Rock’s addition reducing him to spare part status for the most part, something that was already evident in the previous instalment. The movie is already chock-full of comic relief, Leo’s amped-up caricature devouring every scene, and he quickly becomes a convenient plot device, each ‘he did it again’ clanger accompanied by a ‘uh-oh’ musical flourish that smacks of pantomime. Pesci was such a breath of fresh air back in 1989, his addition to the Riggs/Murtaugh axis beautifully handled and absolutely central to the sequel’s added sting, but here he seems almost unnecessary, a ceaseless punchline who quickly outstays his welcome. Pesci would receive a Golden Raspberry Nomination for Supporting Actor for his third turn as the smart-mouthed, former-crook-turned-sidekick. It’s an incredible fall from grace for a once-brilliant character.
Russo is typically watchable as the woman tasked with fully domesticising Riggs’ seemingly unwavering urge for death and destruction (you can certainly see why she was such a box office draw in her heyday), but even she seems peripheral for the most part, her lack of action explained away by a pregnancy that sees her fall into more helpless territory ― quite the comedown for Part 3’s bona fide bad ass. She and Riggs still have fantastic chemistry, but don’t expect any feats of incredible high-kickery or steamy, wound comparison scenes. Like the majority of the film’s cast, she’s simply along for the ride, largely ditching her independent strength for woman-on-the-arm status. Russo and Gibsons’ enduring chemistry adds a degree of emotional punch to their narrative, but it’s all so fast and furious it’s sometimes hard to consume. It often feels like two instalments crammed into one.
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.
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.
There are some thrilling, truly funny, genuinely touching moments in Lethal Weapon 4, but you can’t help but feel just a little jaded. The question is, was it worth it? Many will tell you, No, absolutely not. They should have left it well alone. Others will suggest that the series should have ended after two instalments, and in terms of maintaining such lofty standards, it’s difficult to argue. But these evolving narratives inspire great loyalty in fans of the franchise. You know in your heart of hearts that the series has run its course, but you don’t begrudge them one last reunion, and deep down you want closure on the lives of these characters, however strained it sometimes feels. That’s the beauty of the Lethal Weapon series. So many add so much with such little screen time. Secondary characters are generally expendable, but a Lethal Weapon movie without an appearance from Mary Ellen Trainor’s Dr. Stephanie Woods, however brief, just isn’t a Lethal Weapon movie in the purest sense.
Ultimately, the film is an attempt to wrap-up proceedings as neatly as possible. It’s transparently engineered at times, but few characters deserve a happy ending like those from the Lethal Weapon series. In the end, everyone has their moment. Even Leo gets the emotional ending he deserves in a touching scene at Riggs’ wife’s grave. Riggs is contemplating tying the knot with Lorna, and in Leo he is sent the most unlikely angel, a suitably absurd, yet utterly relevant frog analogy the sign Riggs was looking for to finally move on with his life. It’s an essential moment that salvages the character’s integrity and importance to the franchise as a whole. All Leo ever wanted was acceptance, and he finally earns the right to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his biggest detractor.
It’s all a little shallow and predictable, but once you commit to something you have to go all in, and 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 film’s absurdly convenient 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. They just up and vanish without any kind of emotional closure, cheapening the whole slavery angle that meant so much to a sympathetic Rog and the racial protestations of the series at large. When Murphy delivers the good news, he does so with the cheery insouciance of someone confirming the Lakers score.
It’s a somewhat tired conclusion to the franchise, but it’s hard to resent on any serious level. There’s a lack of creative integrity at play, an affront to the series at its peak, but it’s those elements of family and camaraderie that set the series apart. Donner understood 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 our own family album of cherished moments. We remember the good times and the bad, the comedy and the tragedy, the fantastic scenarios and the 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.