This movie opens with the classic Christmas song Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms. Yes that’s right this classic action flick could also be considered a Christmas movie as it takes place over the festive season. This is one reason why its always kinda reminded me of 1988’s ‘Die Hard’. Its seems Xmas was a popular backdrop for action flicks back in the 80’s.
So what is this all about? Well back in 1985 Shane Black wrote a screenplay for an urban western inspired by ‘Dirty Harry’. In typical Shane Black fashion the script was quite long and excessively violent. Cutting a long story short, after numerous rewrites from various people (including Black), the script was eventually bought and offered to Richard Donner. The final result was (I believe) the first buddy cop flick to really light up the box office; and I believe the first flick to kick-start the whole buddy cop genre, to establish the rules almost. Over the years, from this one movie, came a raft of clones that used and abused every idea to the point where they became common stereotypes.
The eventual plot: Its very simple really. Riggs and Murtaugh must battle a heroin-smuggling operation known as ‘The Shadow Company’ (they umm…smuggle heroin). You see a young girl is murdered and her father (Michael Hunsaker, a close friend of Murtaugh) wants her killers found. But it turns out Hunsaker used to be in cahoots with the Shadow Company, helping them launder their money. When Hunsaker wanted out, the company killed his daughter. So Riggs and Murtaugh run about the place trying to solve this little problem with lots of gunfire and car chases.
Even today looking back, its really hard to not roll your eyes at all the common tropes and cliches that have now been milked dry over time. I had to keep reminding myself that this was literally the first movie to introduce these things. I mean lets look at the basic outline here, one white cop, Riggs (Mel Gibson). One black cop, Murtaugh (Danny Glover). One is middle-aged, ex-special forces, and a complete loose cannon. The other is an older more mature, straight-laced, by the books Veteran of the police force. The loose cannon is of course insane, suicidal (due to the death of his wife); where as the straight-laced cop is a sensible family man. The sensible cop is lumbered with the insane cop as a new partner. At first they don’t get on, a clash of personalities, but over time they come to respect each other and eventually become buddies.
At the start of the movie Riggs is essentially living like a bum. He’s an alcoholic living in a run down scruffy trailer on the beach. Not quite sure how he’s allowed to have a trailer on the beach, surely local laws would not allow that? In the meantime Murtaugh has a hectic family life with three young kids, one of which is of course a coming of age young girl. Riggs is looking to put himself into dangerous scenarios because he simply doesn’t give a shit; whilst Murtaugh is slowly becoming older and grumpier, trying to survive until retirement. The latter is exacerbated by a dreary saxophone theme that plays every time Murtaugh is feeling like shit. Again something that has become an action movie stereotype/cliche ever since.
Everything in the movie is basically set up to reflect these character traits. For instance Riggs carries an automatic pistol where as Murtaugh uses an old fashioned six-shooter. The musical score for Riggs is obviously very different to Murtaugh’s little saxophone theme. Murtaugh’s young daughter takes a fancy to Riggs, much to his horror (a bit risqué these days!). Riggs sports a wild mullet that goes against police regulations and Murtaugh’s sensible short back and sides. Riggs dresses casually in jeans and a shirt, Murtaugh wears a suit etc…Its all very corny these days naturally. But of course the basic premise is that both characters save each other. Murtaugh and his family give Riggs a reason to keep living. Whilst Riggs injects some excitement and much needed manly companionship into Murtaugh’s life, at a point where he was at a low due to his age.
‘guess we gotta register you as a lethal weapon huh‘
As for the villains, well its obviously cliche city, but also not as good as you might recall. The Shadow Company is also controlled by an ex-special forces bloke (a regular trait of action movies, everyone is ex-something). General Peter McAllister (Mitchel Ryan) is simply an old bloke with white hair, he literally does nothing except throw some orders around. This character is not in the least bit threatening. His second in command, the über blonde Mr Joshua (Gary Busey), is also not particularly threatening. Unless you count being able to resist getting your arm burnt by a cigarette lighter as scary. Its amusing really because both characters literally do jack shit for the entire movie, Joshua has a fight sequence with Riggs in the finale but that’s it!
And why does Joshua and Riggs right anyway? Out of nowhere Riggs just offers him a chance to fight him, one on one, mano-a-mano. Yeah we know Joshua had Riggs tortured at one point, and shot him with a shotgun at another, but why do we need this fight? It kinda felt like Donner ran out of ideas for the finale, found himself needing something to fill the gap. Its also at this point we discover both Riggs and Joshua are experts in fighting; something you don’t get any inkling of beforehand and never crops up again.
In these old action flicks the baddies normally are the cheesiest. For some reason all the multitude of henchmen appear to be middle aged guys in suits, often with odd haircuts, wearing shades. This was basically the norm back in the day for action movies, but its hilarious looking back now. They were also completely useless and couldn’t hit the side of a barn door with their automatic weapons. Its also amusing how these guys never seemed to have any sort of personal life, like they all just stand guard over their boss 24/7. And what group of bad guys would be complete without their own seedy bar to hang out in huh. The kind of bar where you can shoot someone and no one blinks an eye apparently.
Then outside said bar, Murtaugh simply walks into a random alley, the very same alley that McAllister is escaping in. They literally cut from an action sequence to Murtaugh wondering around outside and, oh look, there’s the bad guy escaping in his car, how convenient! After Murtaugh pumps the windshield full of lead the car hits a bus and inexplicably flips over and explodes (laugh out loud!). Yeah twas cool to watch back in the day but wut?? There are many (now) hilarious sequences like this in the movie, such as the desert standoff. Riggs is on sniper duty miles away, but McAllister finds him?? Where did McAllister come from?? Murtaugh threatens to blow everyone up with a grenade…but as Joshua points out, he obviously isn’t gonna kill his own daughter. Then there’s the ridiculous escape failure by Murtaugh’s daughter. She tries to escape in the car and somehow allows the baddie helicopter to run her into a ditch. She then proceeds to do the obligatory ‘get out and run and pretend to fall over’ routine.
Its clearly of no surprise to anyone that this movie is by far the best in the franchise. Like many other old action movie franchises the original is the darker, grittier, more adult orientated of the bunch. ‘Lethal Weapon’ is by no means a great movie looking back. After rewatching I found myself cringing at many of the action sequences, laughing at dialog and attempts at comedy, and generally thinking to myself how a persons opinions change with age (when I was younger I thought this was an epic action flick). I have to be honest and say, I think this movie gets more of a pass simply because it was the first of its kind; the first to kick open the doors and introduce all these hammy action movie cliches. Its actually the Murtaugh family scenes which are more of the highlight now. Watching Riggs react to Roger’s old man bickering with his wife and kids. But despite all that, as said, its still easily the best in the series and way better than most modern day attempts.