With reports of the long awaited fifth instalment still appearing regularly, Tom Jolliffe looks back at the iconic action franchise on the 34th anniversary of the first movie…
As an 80’s kid, the end of the decade and into the 90’s saw two action franchises become particularly prevalent among my video collection. I’d not be alone in this. Sure we had Arnold, Sly, Van Damme et al. We also had Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. As far as the everyman action heroes of that era, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon really delivered two of the most iconic of the era, and both remain utterly essential as action films. Lets also get one thing straight, you’d best all recognise that Lethal Weapon is a Christmas film, otherwise your diplomatic immunity has just been revoked! Yep, like Die Hard, it has that seasonal backdrop that has often made it essential viewing for me around the Christmas holidays.
Mel Gibson and Danny Glover star as a mismatched pair of cops, one hitting fifty (Glover) and on the verge of retirement, the other a burned out, suicidal misfit who is uncontrollable (Gibson). It was a match made in heaven, combined with expert direction (from Richard Donner) and a sizzling script from a young chap called Shane Black. Black’s penchant for the buddy up film has become further cemented in years since of course with films like The Nice Guys, Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Lethal Weapon probably remains his pièce de résistance. It’s littered with great lines (I quote this as endlessly as almost any action film, likewise lines from the sequels). The first film also had with it a darker, grittier edge and Gibson in particularly intense form. There are moments of drama here that add more heft to the film than you atypically saw from the genre through the 80’s. Glover, likewise, is superb. As a double team he and Gibson were perfect foil and each given a great mix of range, great moments and great lines. Throw in Gary Busey as an awesome henchman, and an absolutely bone breaking final fight with Riggs, and this is an action classic.
Whether a fifth film – which Gibson claimed earlier this week is “absolutely” happening – can work is another matter. Age comes into question. Not just the two lead stars. If Danny Glover proclaimed he was too old for this shit in 1987, he’s undoubtedly quite long in the tooth in 2020 (though he actually played older than he was in the first film). Gibson is looking every inch the gruff and grizzled character actor these days. It’s all been said before regarding his much publicised controversy a decade or so ago. Gibson though, is on something of a redemptive path it seems and slowly but surely, audiences have opened up to him again (and as an actor, he’s honestly better than ever). Not in a big way, and indeed as a box office draw, there’s not nearly enough in the bank to make anything over a modest budget sensible expenditure. One option could be the straight to streaming service route, with undoubtedly a number of the top platforms a potential and welcoming home for another film. We also must consider Donner, who of last check remains attached to the project. Having not made a film since 2006’s underrated and all round solid, 16 Blocks, and at 90 years old, it’s difficult to envision Donner able to inject the freshness this would need to be done right. If anyone fits, it would be Shane Black, now an accomplished director in his own right, and Donner could stay on board as an exec producer.
Back in time again, and the first sequel provided more of the same with a less tidy structure and the comical addition of Joe Pesci as a witness under the protection of Riggs and Murtaugh. Lethal Weapon 2 might not have had the same dramatic weight, but there was a focus on racism with the villains hailing from a pre-apartheid South Africa. Murtaugh in particular, a proud black man hailing from an era in time where segregation was something he’d have lived through in his youth, takes the quest to take them down to heart. There’s great action here, but Riggs lacks the same edge he had in the first (and the attempts to put it back don’t come off quite as hoped), and like many No2’s of the time, it feels like a pale imitation. That being said, as a straight up badass action film, Lethal Weapon 2 definitely still hits the spot. Glover is particularly good too.
The third instalment is perhaps the forgotten instalment. It introduced a new love interest for Riggs, the girl to re-tame the wild man, in the form of Rene Russo. She’s great. The returning cast all slip into the roles with ease. Murtaugh doesn’t have the same stakes as prior, but gets some drama to chew on. Riggs is now civilised and a lot less reckless, whilst the project itself felt decidedly less intense. It wasn’t as hard as the first and second. Likewise, the introduction of Russo suggested a marked attempt to try and lure a female audience to proceedings, by throwing in a burning romance. To an extent, the third film does rest a lot on the brilliant chemistry between Gibson and Glover and the ever reliable direction of Donner.
Lethal Weapon 4 broadened the horizons and appeal further. Not only did it incorporate Chris Rock into the cast list (along with returnees Russo and Pesci), but the addition of Jet Li introduced American audiences to another Hong Kong action titan. In time the film’s stereotypes have dated badly, and Riggs as played by Gibson comes off somewhat uncomfortably racist at times (in that throwaway manner that was evidently fair game in 1998 but in 2020 most definitely not). Murtaugh’s civil right mission of justice echoes number 2, but never quite as effectively, but there’s still that irresistible chemistry and those expertly delivered set pieces. Li is a stoic and memorable presence however, the best villain since Gary Busey.
What are you thoughts on the Lethal Weapon franchise, and a possible fifth instalment? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.