Lethal Weapon eschewed idealist traditions for alternative festive cynicism, and it did so in joyous fashion. VHS Revival decks the halls with a Christmas cracker
Western cinema matured pretty radically during the 1970s, a sobering reflection of modern American culture. The doomed Vietnam War marked a generational shift in patriotic sentiments, citizens no longer willing to advocate conflict based on populism and propaganda. Thanks to the domestic horrors of the Civil Rights Movement and Richard Nixon’s ‘Watergate’ debacle, a political scandal that led to the resignation of the 37th President of the United States, Americans had plenty to be cynical about during an era of rock and roll rebellion. By the decade’s end, notions of white picket fence freedom seemed like a long-forgotten fantasy.
Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), a film about a group of patriots wrecked by the ravages of war, and Francis Ford Coppola’s epic 1979 movie Apocalypse Now, hammered home those truths, but cinema had evolved long before. Anthropological pieces such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver unearthed the transgressive lice festering beneath American society with a fine tooth comb. Coppolla’s The Conversation (1974), the multi-layered story of a paranoid surveillance expert, exposed the Nixon-era fears that society was built upon. William Friedkin’s The French Connection gave us a morally questionable NYPD officer who challenged the tried-and-tested good guy/bad guy paradigm. The horror genre also came of age, Tobe Hooper’s ‘based on real events’ The Texas Chainsaw Massacre eschewing monsters of the supernatural persuasion for explicit and relatable violence that would set the tone for the next decade.
By the 1980s, cynicism had well and truly set in. Thanks to a rise in Cold War tensions and an oversaturated home video market, patriotic action movies would return with a particularly loud bang, but audiences didn’t take them half as seriously as before. Taking their cue from MTV’s shallow pop video model, mainstream efforts such as Rocky IV were so heavily stylised it was impossible to take them seriously. Lower down the totem pole, Clint Eastwood’s hard-line Republican Dirty Harry series had been succeeded by Cannon’s wholly ridiculous Death Wish movies, which piled on the meaningless kills and misguided politics with the childlike insouciance of an arcade shooter. Horror was dominated by an overabundance of dead-eyed slashers, watered-down versions of Hooper’s progenitor that fell comfortably into convention, going from dead-eyed hysteria to flip self-awareness before the decade was done. Even that time-honoured musical, once a bastion of colourful escapism, would turn to the dark side with Frank Oz’s deliciously wicked Little Shop of Horrors. Society had become so desensitized to the horrors of life sensibilities had hardened irrevocably. Lies and betrayal, the breakdown of the family unit, unabashed violence, it was all old news. You either swallowed it bitterly or built yourself a wall of irony.
Of all those genres, none were as traditional or as sacred as the Christmas movie, which had provided audiences with fantastical wish-fulfilment since movies came into existence. There had always been elements of darkness going all the way back to Walter R. Booth’s 1901 silent film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Marley’s Ghost ― you can’t cure the blues if there are no blues to cure ― but the spirit of Christmas and all its traditions were typically front and centre, and there was always a moral resolution that kept the spiritual Grinch from the door. Even It’s a Wonderful Life‘s George Bailey, having diced with suicide, is delivered from sin by a guardian angel who smacks of mawkish wish-fulfillment. The 1980s were imbued with a deep sense of 50s nostalgia, but it had become difficult to swallow such idealism.
Martin Riggs: [after rescuing Rog and Rianne] What did one shepherd say to the other shepherd? Let’s get the flock out of here!
During the 1980s, Christmas movies began to evolve like a pack of vicious Mogwai after a hefty midnight snack. Joe Dante’s Gremlins would contribute to the founding of the PG-13 rating at the behest of producer Steven Spielberg after a widespread outcry from parents distinctly unprepared for a kids Christmas movie of an entirely different breed (in the UK, it was even lumbered with a 15 rating). The tale of a quaint traditional town ravaged by a pack of evil critters, the movie, an ironic take on It’s a Wonderful Life, saw its eponymous antagonists hang a family dog from Christmas lights, murder a high school biology teacher, and even send resident Scrooge Mrs Deagle careening through a plate-glass window on a supped-up stairlift. Whatever Dante’s intentions, Gremlins touched a raw nerve with parents weaned on Christmas movies of the more traditional variety.
Despite its tonal deviations and 80s ethos, Gremlins still had Christmas traditions front and centre, even if it did put the postcard suburbia of previous generations ruthlessly to the sword. Other 80s movies used Christmas almost as a backdrop, bolstering feelings of redemption with subtle nods that left us questioning whether they even qualified as Christmas movies at all. The most famous of the era was action high point Die Hard, which despite its choice of music, both traditional and otherwise, a series of macabre wisecracks in the Christmas mode and various other festive touches, was an action movie first and foremost. Detective John McClane, estranged from his family, had to fight tooth and nail for his traditional Christmas under the tree, one that was ultimately left to our imagination.
Less talked about, but equally connected to the festive season, is Richard Donner’s innovative buddy cop thriller Lethal Weapon. It’s difficult not to remember what would become a money-spinning franchise as anything but heart-warming comedy with holster accessories, especially those later sequels, but the original instalment, as well as being high-tech and ahead of its time in terms of its buddy dynamic, is a seriously dark thriller. The hugely endearing chemistry of stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover still lends events a comic edge, but the film deals with personal loss and suicide, highlighting the very real burdens of the ‘silly season’ before offering the kind of yuletide redemption more traditionally associated with the time of year. The film gives us plenty of warmth, but the joy we are able to derive is earned and then some.
Lethal Weapon‘s opening perfectly encapsulates the juxtaposing tendencies of Shane Black’s classic screenplay. The film begins with 50s crooner Bobby Helms’ rendition of Jingle Bell Rock, yet another nod to a bygone era, Donner aerial panning a muted LA metropolis in the dead of night (he sure loves those spectacular helicopter shots). From there we cut to a semi-clad beauty teetering on the edge of consciousness. Michael Kamen’s score turns dreamily sinister as Amanda Hansaker stumbles out onto the balcony of a spectacular high-rise apartment and falls headlong into the night. Her body, once a feather, plummets like a sack of coal in a bravura sequence of shots, crashing through the bonnet of a car for good measure. It’s an utterly startling introduction to one of the finest action movies ever made.
If Lethal Weapon was concerned solely with bringing those responsible for Amanda’s death to justice, it wouldn’t have been so unique, but it’s dark depiction of the festive season isn’t over by a long shot. Christmas movies typically present a singular obstacle or tragedy and set about fixing it, but in Lethal Weapon the turmoil runs much deeper. Even the film’s minor characters hint at a life of misfortune for the many LA denizens during the holidays. Thanks to an irrepressibly warm climate and a total absence of snow, it probably doesn’t feel much like Christmas in the traditional sense.
Sergeant McCaskey: You know, Roger, you are way behind the times. The guys of the 80s aren’t tough. They are sensitive people. Show a little emotion to a woman and shit like that. I think I’m an ’80s man…
Roger Murtaugh: How do you figure?
Sergeant McCaskey: Last night I cried in bed. So how is that?
Roger Murtaugh: Were you with a woman?
Sergeant McCaskey: I was alone. Why do you think I cried?
Roger Murtaugh: Sounds like an ’80s man to me…
The person indirectly responsible for Amanda’s suicide, a street walker named Dixie who is later C4’d into orbit, doesn’t strike you as the kind of person who looks forward to yuletide festivities, if she’s even aware what day it is. A self-proclaimed 80s man who works in Roger’s precinct admits to crying alone in bed. There’s an erratic ledge jumper brought unceremoniously down to Earth in just one example of the screenplay’s exquisite grasp on cynical comedy (the bullet that kills Michael Hunsaker while piercing the carton of eggnog he’s holding being another, subtler case in point). Everywhere you look Christmas seems to wrap people in a plague of tinsel.
Then there’s our wild-eyed protagonist. The film’s titular ‘Lethal Weapon’, Martin Riggs, is a strung-out Vietnam vet mourning the death of his wife. Greeting each morning with a cigarette butt and a stale beer, he lives in isolation in a trailer far away from suburbia and thinks of reasons not to eat a bullet every day of his life. That reason is the job, but other cops are scared to partner up with him. Riggs is a man with a death wish, a person who puts himself in harm’s way with the barely suppressed hope that he’ll catch a bullet and be reunited with his lost love. The criminals who call his bluff get a crash course in crazy that sees them submitting like obedient dogs, and they’re the lucky ones. Some have Riggs pegged as a psychotic at the end of his tether, others figure he’s simply trying to draw a psycho pension and qualify for early retirement. The truth is, he is neither, but nobody is willing to stick around long enough to find out.
That’s until Riggs meets Roger Murtaugh, a police sergeant only days from retirement. In an 80s environment of cocaine nights and middle-aged bachelors, he is the personification of a traditional family man, a 50s throwback with high moral values and a loving family who comprise his whole world. Rog is the perfect foil for the broken-down Riggs, a gentle giant who shrugs off stress and strife with a warm casualty that proves deeply infectious. His family know how lucky they are, which is why they no longer want to see him risking his life for the good of society, and on the eve of his 50th birthday he sees no reason not to grant them that wish. Put succinctly, Roger is getting too old for this shit.
In reality, Danny Glover was only 40 when he took on arguably his most famous role, one he would revisit for a series of money-spinning sequels that would forge characters audiences could relate to in a way rarely glimpsed in the action genre. Two years earlier, Glover had wowed moviegoers as abusive curmudgeon Albert Johnson in Stephen Spielberg’s postcolonial, coming-of-age drama The Color Purple, and it is testament to his range that he was able to distance himself from such a mean-spirited performance to become one of the most likeable characters in mainstream Hollywood. In Lethal Weapon, Murtaugh is the grounded yin to Riggs’ explosive yang, but for a while it seems like his chain-smoking partner is too far gone. In Riggs, Rog sees the asshole who will get him killed before he has the chance to hang up his holster.
Riggs shows his homicidal tendencies early on, but also the soft centre beneath, particularly in the Director’s Cut. There’s a nixed scene early on that shows Riggs recklessly walking into gunfire as he attempts to save a class of school kids being held hostage. Later, he picks up a hooker and pays her to go home and watch TV with him. Neither scene is essential to his character, proving superfluous to the theatrical cut’s immaculate pacing, but they’re further proof of the loose cannon we’re dealing with, and the fine line he initially treads. The gut-wrenchingly desolate scene that sees Riggs jam a pistol in his mouth, breaking down while a Looney Tunes Christmas special plays futilely in the background, is enough in itself to hammer the point home, and when Rog’s thumb is the only thing stopping him from repeating the act near a crowded street in broad daylight, you realise this is no passing phase. Depression is a harsh mistress, and there’s nothing like the festive season to bring out the worst in her.
Lethal Weapon was Gibson’s first major action lead outside of Australia, though at 31 the actor was already a ten-year veteran, most notably as the face of the iconic Mad Max series. He had also starred alongside Sissy Spacek in 1984’s Oscar-winning drama The River, as well as critically acclaimed Australian dramas Gallipoli (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), so he was no slouch acting wise. Gibson shows touches of his drama heritage here, but the Lethal Weapon movies are all about personality and camaraderie, particularly the wonderful onscreen chemistry of our two leads, one of the most endearing ever captured by a lens.
Martin Riggs: Hey, look friend, let’s just cut the shit. Now we both know why I was transferred. Everybody thinks I’m suicidal, in which case, I’m fucked and nobody wants to work with me; or they think I’m faking to draw a psycho pension, in which case, I’m fucked and nobody wants to work with me. Basically, I’m fucked.
Roger Murtaugh: Guess what?
Martin Riggs: What?
Roger Murtaugh: I don’t want to work with you!
Martin Riggs: Hey, don’t.
Roger Murtaugh: Ain’t got no choice! Looks like we both been fucked!
Martin Riggs: Terrific.
Roger Murtaugh: God hates me. That’s what it is.
Martin Riggs: Hate him back; it works for me.
I say two leads because unlike most action movies, Gibson and Glover receive almost equal billing. Gibson’s blue-eyed charm and comic timing make him a hugely watchable actor, and though the film’s title alludes to the Riggs character, its central narrative revolves around Roger, who is contacted by ex-war buddy Michael Hunsaker following the murder/suicide of his daughter. Unlike many black and white pairings, it never feels like Roger is filler. Riggs may be the film’s undisputed bad ass, but Rog isn’t there to simply make up the numbers or appeal to the black demographic. The two are very much a unit who couldn’t exist without one another, and Roger isn’t the crook or comedian in the equation, the character who earns the respect of his white superior by making the necessary adaptation. If anything it is Riggs who needs Roger. Murtaugh is the responsible head of a household, the calming influence who leads Riggs along the right path. He doesn’t get by on crass humour or racial catchphrases. He’s an honest, decent man who welcomes the white vagrant into the fold, a character driven by purely human qualities who is worthy of our respect.
Roger owes Mike, who took a bayonet in the lungs for him over in Nam, but their relationship is tested when a gang of drug-dealing mercenaries look to put our duo out of business. Roger spends most of the movie attempting to tame Riggs, hassling him about smoking, teaching him the virtues of shooting for the leg and generally adopting him as an extended part of the Murtaugh homestead. Riggs takes to the Murtaughs like a duck to water, bringing Rog coffee in bed like a dutiful wife dipped in irony and generally becoming a household fixture. It is here that we’re introduced to the character’s softer side, but when eldest daughter Rianne is kidnapped and her life threatened, Riggs takes it all rather personally. A monster is stirred.
Riggs’ one-man rampage, escaping electrocution at the hands of Al Leong’s torture expert, Endo, and toppling the infamous Shadow Company’s operation like a demolition expert imploding a skyscraper, is absolutely devastating. There’s also a hypertense desert stand-off, shot in spectacular fashion by Donner and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, that displays Riggs’ world class skills as a ruthless marksman. Gibson’s charm may be his trump card, but few actors in the heartthrob mode can pull off a believable bad ass quite like him. From the moment we learn of Riggs’ background we’re waiting to see if he can live up to his hard man reputation, and when the time finally comes to deliver, he doesn’t disappoint. He is every bit the long-dormant killer Mary Ellen Trainor’s relentless psychologist warned us about.
But circumstance is a great healer, and in the welcoming arms of the Murtaughs, Riggs finds his reason for adapting. The relationship arc of our two leads is an absolute joy to behold, partly due to Shane Black’s innovative screenplay, and partly due to Gibson and Glover’s joyous antics, which spill out in a rainbow of natural rapport. Not only do you invest in the duo’s burgeoning relationship, you feel it in your very bones. You are there for the laughter and the heartache, and you will them every step of the way.
Famously, the film almost didn’t exist the way we know and love it. Speaking on the documentary Psycho Pension: The Genesis of Lethal Weapon, a then rookie Black had a very different take on things, writing a much grittier, Dirty Harry style tale of urban redemption, one that would end with a truck full of cocaine exploding in a downpour of ‘snow’ and covering the famous Hollywood sign. A cute image, but the product of a commercially naïve and underdeveloped screenplay that Black himself would quickly dismiss. In the end, the experienced hand of Joel Silver and a series of uncredited Jeffrey Boam rewrites would bring the screenplay out of total darkness, a read-through from the movie’s would-be stars leaving Donner in “Seventh heaven”. As the filmmaker would later explain, “[Gibson and Glover] found innuendos; they found laughter where I never saw it; they found tears where they didn’t exist before; and, most importantly, they found a relationship — all in just one reading.”
Roger Murtaugh: [in reference to their suspicions] Nah, that’s pretty fucking thin!
Martin Riggs: [chuckling] That’s very thin.
Roger Murtaugh: Ah, what the hell! Thin’s my middle name.
Martin Riggs: Yeah, your wife’s cooking, I’m not surprised.
Roger Murtaugh: [over gunfire] What?
Martin Riggs: Nothing
Roger Murtaugh: Remarks like that will no get you invited to Christmas dinner!
Martin Riggs: [smiling] My luck’s changing for the better every day.
The same can be said of the characters they portray. From the very beginning the two are drawn hopelessly to one another, Roger initially mistaking the precinct’s newbie for an armed criminal looking to tear up the place, the first of several touchy confrontations that threaten to spell disaster. Despite both characters having a Vietnam background, the screenplay never goes down the Rambo road. In fact, it even slips in a cheeky nod to those kinds of movies, which had become trite and overblown by the late 80s. “It’s over, you know,” Roger tells Riggs prior to their first shift together. “What is?” Riggs asks. “The war.” “Erm, yes. I know,” Riggs sarcastically replies. Later, after killing a suspect who almost gets the drop on Rog, Riggs is asked if he’s ever met anyone he hasn’t killed. “Well I haven’t killed you yet,” he replies. It’s another classic interaction that leads Rog to retort, “Well, don’t do me no favours.” But he’s already done him the ultimate favour, he’s saved his life, and a lifelong brotherhood is forged.
Even at his lowest, Riggs displays a prankish charm at odds with his fearsome reputation. Early in the movie he goes undercover with some drug dealers on a Christmas tree lot, teasing them by counting a hundred dollars for a stash of cocaine worth $100,000. He ends the scene in over-the-edge, suicidal mode, but the comic spark and sense of mischief is intrinsic, exploding in a wild, yet ultimately serious Three Stooges impression. He sends plenty of mischief Murtaugh’s way too. Despite his tough guy reputation and cavalier antics, he’s a big kid at heart.
Even more irresistible is the partnership’s dynamic. The screenplay is so water-tight, the improv so dead-on. The scene at the shooting range captures it all so beautifully, displaying the danger and good humour in Riggs and the back-and-forth banter that makes them such an endearing package. In a classic scene, Rog is proud of his near-perfect revolver shot from close range. In response, Riggs shoots a smiley face into a target that’s almost out of sight, foreshadowing his killer instinct with playful insouciance. “Have a nice day.” Later, after Riggs has met the family, Rog opens a trash can just in time to catch his partner’s empty. It’s a subtle moment, but a telling one. They’ve already achieved total harmony, and Riggs isn’t shy about criticising Trish’s lousy cooking, something Roger seems to appreciate. When you can be that honest, you know you’ve found someone special.
Despite its largely cynical view of Christmas, Lethal Weapon‘s sentiments are traditional at heart, and when Riggs finds solace at the Murtaugh Christmas dinner, gifting Roger the hollow-point bullet he no longer needs, we’re back in familiar festive territory. Our dynamic duo go from uncaring and resentment to love and dependency in a 105-minute movie that establishes the richest buddy relationship the action genre has ever known. This is a world strewn with violence, with loneliness and isolation, but also with reassuring irony and soothing kinship. It is gritty, humorous and touching in equal measures, a recipe that has never been so refined in the action movie canon.
Many fans actually prefer Lethal Weapon 2, and there’s certainly a case for that, but Riggs is something of a domesticated animal by that point, and Lethal Weapon‘s original relationship arc could never be repeated. It’s just as fun seeing their relationship blossom, which despite the inevitable sequalitis is what made the series so rewarding going forward, but only one instalment makes my Christmas list. Lethal Weapon may not be as humorous or as action packed as its successor, but it has a darker, more dynamic edge, with a redemptive journey that makes it a one-of-a-kind action thriller. When the first notes of Elvis’ rendition of I’ll Be Home For Christmas reach us like a parting gift, there’s a homeliness that very few action movies achieve. It’s almost like like hanging out with old friends. The faces are familiar, the joke never gets old, and you often find yourself seeking out the memories as if the lives of these characters were your very own.