By Marc S. Sanders
The opening scene to Richard Donner’s 1987 film, Lethal Weapon, always intrigues me. Following an opening credit flyover of Los Angeles at night played to the tune of “Jingle Bell Rock,” a beautiful young, topless woman snorts some cocaine, steps out on a balcony and leaps to her death. It was a great hook for the beginning of a script written by Shane Black. How does a random suicide jump connect to heavily armed mercenaries with an interest in heroin shipments? Two cops at odds with one another will find out.
Mel Gibson and Danny Glover hit the payload of a new and long lasting cinematic franchise playing suicidal cop Martin Riggs and by the book family man Roger Murtaugh; one of the very best on screen pairings since Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.” Riggs is ready to die at any given moment following the loss of his loving wife. There’s an effective dramatic moment where Gibson plays a very drunk Riggs, and loads a bullet into the chamber of his Baretta. Donner gets one unsettling take of a man in despair biting down on the weapon, holding it to his forehead and under his chin. It’s pretty frightening. Gibson is great in this moment, red faced and uncontrollably tearful.
The first of the four films remains the best as Black’s story is continuously pealing back layer after layer. There’s something new to the main plot in nearly every scene. A banker is involved. A nightclub as well, and a prostitute’s house is detonated and of course there’s the girl who dove off her balcony. Shane Black seamlessly connects all the dots.
More so, there’s something to the cops relationship in nearly every scene. We see Riggs & Murtaugh begin with a major divide in working together. Riggs has a cavalier attitude of nothing to lose. Murtaugh is content with turning 50, but might not get to enjoy his new year at the expense of his new partner’s reckless behavior. How does Riggs rescue a suicide jumper? Not the way you’d expect I imagine. Efficiently, a trust is built among the two men with Donner doing a fine job of escaping the main storyline for a nice family meal. It’s humorous and charming but necessary to really appreciate these characters. Then the ribbing among the two guys happens. Jokes about Roger’s wife’s cooking and a contest of target practice at the shooting range allow the audience to feel like they just made two new best friends.
On the other side are two worthy villains played by Mitchell Ryan, and more prominently Gary Busey. They play ruthless shadow company soldiers from the Vietnam era ready to eliminate anyone who interferes with their drug dealing venture. Busey is especially good and ruthless. It’s a shame that gossip magazines and a crazy lifestyle have mostly dominated his public life over the years. He’s so good in this role. He had already been an Oscar nominee by the time this film was released. You have to wonder why did it all go so wrong for him. Gary Busey might have been a top billing movie star.
Richard Donner had already been a well established director with Superman The Movie, The Goonies, and The Omen. His action film was even more a testament to his skills. Action scenes are so well filmed in “Lethal Weapon” whether they take place in a Christmas tree lot, a desert outskirt, a nightclub or on Hollywood Boulevard. Credit should also go to Michael Kamen’s music, adventurously dramatic with an air of mystery at times. He works in accompaniment with Eric Clapton too.
I take one issue with Lethal Weapon. The final scene, a jiu jitsu fight between Gibson and Busey in front of the entire police force abandons the story. Nothing new is left to happen. Ever since I saw the film in theaters I asked myself why is this here. Two tough guys just punching the hell out of each other. There’s no development here. There’s no way a moment like this would ever occur. In addition, the editing is choppy at times and I can’t tell who is hitting who. It’s not a terrible violation, but it’s not all that interesting either.
Barring this ending scene, Lethal Weapon is just a well assembled film of action, humor, drama, suspense, and story. At the time, Shane Black was paid a record sum for his script. I still believe it was worth every penny.