Dissecting the Lethal Weapon Saga

Here at Southern Vision we’re mainly devoted to foreign or independent cinema, but never let it be said that we’ve shut out the good old mainstream American movies. No way! Today I’ve decided to write a post about four of the greatest cop movies ever made; fantastic buddy action flicks that I recommend to almost everyone, the Lethal Weapon saga.

Now, there are a lot of cop movies out there. A lot. So what makes the Lethal Weapon films special? Well, everything. They’re classic films which made the perfect pairing of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, throwing a loudmouthed Joe Pesci into the equation for all three sequels. What’s great about all four films is that they take their originality and uniqueness and retain it, rather than using it for 90 minutes and throwing it away. All four movies are a lot of fun to watch, and none of them, even the much disputed and disliked 4, bored me or were ‘bad’ movies, in my opinion.

With my recent purchase of the entire box set of the four films, I decided to rewatch them all in one go, in one night, taking nearly eight hours out of my day to do so. I don’t regret a second of it; I’ve seen them numerous times and never get tired of them.

I’m struggling to determine exactly what it is I love about them so much. It’s so many things; it’s the terrific chemistry between the lead actors; the way Joe Pesci seems like a third cop, rather than just the annoying trademark sidekick; the way other cops also manage to be likable and funny without even becoming main or even secondary characters; the memorable villains which are sometimes hilarious, sometimes dead serious and occasionally Bond-like; the incredibly hilarious sequences which sometimes come between the action, during the action or at all times when the action is not taking place.

Take for example the second film, which is certainly not as good as the first one, but is arguably one of the best movie sequels I’ve ever seen. There are three perfect, hilarious scenes in that film. One involves a commercial for condoms that no one was expecting. Another tackles racism in an inoffensive and lighthearted manner. And the third is one of the most well-known moments in the entire saga, depicting Murtaugh sitting on a toilet that will explode if he gets up.

And what makes this comedy so amazing is that it is contrasted in the same film by scenes of serious action and the drowning of a certain character which evokes a deadly revenge in Riggs’s enraged heart. There is nothing funny about his final quest for revenge, evoking memories of his dead wife who we’ve never met, but who throughout the entire series, particularly in the first two films, becomes obvious as a figure who has completely changed the way Riggs’s operated and lived. And when she died, so did a part of him.

But enough of the seriousness; Lethal Weapon is more comedy than drama, and I’m extremely thankful for that because the comedy is original, delivered excellently and is indeed very, very funny. It shines in all four films, whether delivered by Riggs (Gibson), Murtaugh (Glover), or the inimitable Leo Getz (Pesci). The sequels may not have been any where near as exciting or interesting as they are if not for the presence of Pesci’s character. Leo Getz is a fast-talking (“Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay…”), irritating but very hilarious man who, throughout the three sequels, takes on a number of different occupations, but remains the same funny fellow. His comedy is delivered so fast and in such a quickfire, timeless manner that it really becomes Pesci’s unique brand. He often rants about various things, most notably the drive-thru services at fast food restaurants, his hatred for which is punctuated by him repeatedly screaming “They fuck you at the drive-thru!” There is a scene where he had me in stitches when, after rambling on and on about something random, he opens the car door quickly and a car immediately screeches by and takes the door with it. I was in stitches. It’s all delivered so quickly that we don’t know how to take it, it becomes difficult to breathe.

But the comedy’s not all Pesci. The most hilarious stuff comes in the second film, as I mentioned before, and very little of that is from Leo Getz. There is one timeless scene where in order to create a distraction, Murtaugh and Getz are forced to approach a man working a building targeted by apartheid protestors and create a situation where the man has to convince a supposedly South-African Murtaugh not to return to South Africa. The exasperated man has run out of ideas, and finally breathes the simple but effective line: “Well… you’re black!”

The comedy is well-structured throughout the series but so is the action. Action sequences are well choreographed, superbly shot and quite memorable. I haven’t seen as many action movies as the average action film lover, but I’ve seen a few and many of the Lethal Weapon sequences stick in my memory as exceptional. Whether in the middle of the desert, on a cargo ship, aboard speeding cars or the roofs of Chinatown, there are great chases, realistic violence and engaging action, that is never overdone and always grounded in real life. The most well-known action sequence from the series is in the first film, which features Mel Gibson and Gary Busey fighting in the mud and rain, a gritty and realistic battle full of nasty fistpunches and spiteful bone breaking.

In general, the films are all well-structured, but admittedly the fourth film is a bit of a letdown. By now, things have been wearing just a tiny bit thin. The comedy is still hilarious and the action engaging, but evidently producers didn’t think it was quite good enough, and decided to cast Chris Rock as an irritable rookie cop who has impregnated Murtaugh’s daughter, and Jet Li as a silent but deadly warrior weapon. We’ve seen them both play these respective parts in other movies, so it’s not really fresh and original when they bring it to this film. But the way Riggs, Murtaugh and Getz react to the introduction of these new characters is what makes it special. They still retain the charm of their charisma, and make what is certainly not the greatest sequel still seem very special.

The flaws in the series are few and far between; even the worst moments of the series are redeemed soon after by yet another classic sequence, and in general, the Lethal Weapon films are strong, funny and filled with great action sequences that are never over the top. These are films that will always be high regarded amongst the hundreds of tiresome action movies being churned out so constantly. People like Michael Bay and Joel Schumacher could learn a lot from these, that I cannot emphasize a lot. There will never be an action movie saga as successful, compelling and entertaining as this, a series I have loved since childhood and will continue to love, in high regard amongst the unending series of Hollywood popcorn flicks.

Those are my thoughts on the series. Have you seen all four films, or only one? Have you seen any of them at all? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks.

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Posted on October 15, 2011, in Movie Reviews, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. What if I was to tell you… I’ve never seen these films before.

    • I would say that you must be joking, you’re a terrible person and a failure as a cinemagoer. NO, just kidding, you’re definitely not any of those things. I forgive you easily, as you’re not the only person I know who hasn’t seen them. But seriously, you have to see at least the first two. Don’t worry so much about 3 and 4.

  2. Hi, Tyler and company:

    Great choice for a weekend topic!

    I really enjoyed the first Lethal Weapon film. The ones that followed, not so much.

    Liked the teaming of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in what started as a solid ‘Partner’ flick. Ala Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider in Fiiedkin’s The French Connection and later, William Petersen and John Pankow in To Live and Die in L.A... As they fought bad guy Mitchell Ryan and his delightfully over the top henchman, Gary Busey. It’s a shame that the film evolved into a ‘Buddy’ flick by the last reel and lost its edge.

    Once Joe Pesci and Renee Russo were added, the franchise began going down hill. Though the action sequences remained top notch and Mel Gibson could continue to show off his love for The Three Stooges from time to time.

    • I think the first two films certainly have more merit, style and originality than the latter two, but I wouldn’t rule out Pesci and Russo’s contributions altogether: I thought Pesci’s character was seriously funny (only in the second movie though) and Russo added a somewhat refreshing attitude to the series. Though I’ll concede that in general, their characters are annoying and somewhat unnecessary.

  3. Great post. I’ll admit that I’m a big fan of the first Lethal Weapon film and agree that the sequel is good too. I actually don’t really mind the third movie, even if it’s a step backwards. Even with Jet Li and Chris Rock, I feel like the 4th movie is extremely painful, however. Most of the jokes fall flat, and even some of the exciting action scenes are worn down by just awful attempts at humor. Still, it’s an impressive series, especially because of the first two movies.

    • I agree that the third film is a step backwards, and at times the fourth film seems painfully dull, but I refuse to discredit them completely. As much as I disliked Chris Rock and Jet Li’s characters, I still think 4 had great comedy and action, though in far less desirable portions than the earlier films.

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