Friday, April 13, 2012

"Lethal Weapon" (1987)

Starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover and Gary Busey
Written by Shane Black
Directed by Richard Donner
Rated R - Violence, language, nudity, drug use
Running Time: 110 Minutes (Director's Cut - 117 Minutes)

"Die Hard" is the best Christmas movie ever.  The 2nd best Christmas movie ever?  "Lethal Weapon."

When a young girl is poisoned and jumps off the roof of an LA high rise, aging detective Roger Murtaugh is shocked to find that it's the daughter of an old Vietnam war buddy.  As he begins to dig into the case, Murtaugh is annoyed to be assigned a new partner - Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) who everyone believes may be suicidal after the death of his wife in a car accident.

Riggs and Murtaugh don't get along.  Murtaugh is a veteran cop who likes to do things safe and the old way, and Riggs is a young hotshot who takes unnecessary risks.  But soon enough they discover they're going to need each other to stay alive as their case uncovers a massive drug ring operated by a former US Army general Peter McCallister (Mitchell Ryan).  McCallister and his private army including the psychotic henchman Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey) are planning a huge shipment of heroin, with one of Murtaugh's old Army buddies running the money end of it.

Things get more dangerous as McCallister decides that Murtaugh's family is the leverage they need to get the two cops off their case.  Riggs and Murtaugh will have to do whatever it takes to save them... if they can survive each other first.

"Lethal Weapon" is a great action film.  The script crackles, even if it takes a somewhat lackadaisical approach to its central mystery.  In addition to some smashing action sequences, the buddy cop banter between Riggs and Murtaugh is first-rate.

The director's cut version of the film adds about seven minutes of new material, mostly at the beginning, including a great scene in which Riggs responds to a sniper shooting at children on a school playground.  The characters are well-drawn, more so in the director's cut version, though as mentioned that version seems a little less focused in regards to the crime Riggs and Murtaugh are trying to solve.  It takes things a bit longer to get going, but it's worth it for the extra development the characters get.

Mel Gibson puts in a fantastic performance as the extremely damaged Martin Riggs.  He's got the crazy and the action scenes down pat, but he can also handle the part of Riggs that's torn up inside and thinks constantly about killing himself, or when he's haunted by the things he's done.  In a scene after enjoying dinner with Murtaugh's family, he gets a look in his eye as he mentions to Murtaugh just how good he is at killing people and tells a brief story from his days in the war.  It's a great little moment in a film that reminds us that, at one time, Mel Gibson was a huge star who deserved the fame he'd accrued.

Equally, Danny Glover is able to keep pace as the exasperated family man who has to deal with both his own advancing years and being partnered with such a nutjob.  He has great chemistry with Gibson, but does an excellent job playing the straight-man in the pair.  "Lethal Weapon" nails the buddy cop genre, with the two going back and forth a mile a minute.

As I mentioned, pacing can be an issue.  "Lethal Weapon" is definitely a slow burn, and doesn't really unleash the action until the climax.  Little brief explosions of violence occur throughout the film, such as an early bit with Riggs doing a drug bust at a Christmas tree lot, or a shootout at a pimp's drug lab about halfway through.  But it's really not until the third act, when Riggs and Murtaugh must rescue Murtaugh's daughter Rianne (Traci Wolfe), that things really blow up.  Director Donner stages some fine sequences, with gunfights, explosions, and a really awesome one-on-one slugfest between Gibson and Busey.

"Lethal Weapon" is an action classic, right up there with "Die Hard."  It's easy to put the two movies together; the Christmastime setting and themes of redemption, the similar tones, even similar musical scoring by Michael Kamen make the two almost seem like companion pieces.  They'd make a fine holiday double feature. Gibson and Glover are in top form, and though the script can be a little slow, the whole thing comes together fantastically in the end.