Review: Lethal Weapon (1987)

Lethal Weapon

© Warner Bros.

© Warner Bros.

The idea of the buddy cop film has been around for decades, but it was in the 1980s that the sub-genre truly came into prominence. Films like Beverly Hills CopTango & Cash, and Turner and Hooch plastered the cinema screens in the midst of the decade, but above them all stood the Lethal Weapon franchise which still holds today as one of the most successful action franchises of all time. The original 1987 film set a groundbreaking new standard for what the buddy cop sub-genre could deliver. 

Lethal Weapon follows homicide detective Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) as he investigates the apparent suicide of a young prostitute. As he begins to probe the situation, the department assigns him a new partner, the hotheaded Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), whose life has been a constant struggle since the untimely death of his wife. Riggs goes through each and every day with an ostensible death wish, and his over-the-top actions and borderline illegal police work play opposite Murtaugh's by-the-book tendencies. As the two dive deeper into the case, they start to uncover clues that reveal a much larger plot in play. Murtaugh and Riggs then must band together and learn from one another's strengths and weaknesses lest their own personal lives become interwoven with the nefarious scheme. 

I know what you're thinking: how have I managed to go this long without seeing an action classic like Lethal Weapon? Over the years, I have caught glimpses of it playing on television, and I distinctly recognized a number of scenes throughout the film. That being said, I am ashamed to say that my strongest connect to the Lethal Weapon franchise has been a running gag featured on the show "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." With the film currently available on streaming services, however, I figured that now was as good a time as any to take the plunge into the franchise. 

The film does have connections to a recent theatrical release. Shane Black, the writer and director of this year's The Nice Guys, wrote Lethal Weapon as his screenwriting debut. If you're familiar with The Nice Guys or even Black's directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, you'll definitely see a parallel to his writing work here in Lethal Weapon; you do, however, get the sense that with this particular movie, Black is still getting his feet wet with the idea of crafting a storyline and creating fully-crafted characters. The story starts somewhat awkwardly as we get a rush-cut of both Riggs and Murtaugh in an attempt to lay the groundwork for their individual personas. These early scenes do well to establish certain character traits, but they feel a tad bit rushed right at the start of the movie.

Everything starts to settle down once the two start working together, but the movie does suffer a few missteps here and there. Some of the dialogue is painfully awkward, for example. Lethal Weapon offers a number of one-liners and iconic quips, but there are a few that stand out as incredibly strange. In one scene, Glover's Murtaugh is being tortured, and in an act of defiance, he consistently tells the big baddie (portrayed by Mitchell Ryan) to "Go spit." I very well may be missing out on some sort of obscure '80s jargon, but the repeated line felt incredibly out of place in an otherwise tense situation. The film also ends with an incredible action sequence that involves our two heroes chasing down a former special ops bad guy played by Gary Busey. The chase itself is fun, and our unlikely team manages to get the slip on the villain, but after all the fireworks and ammunition seems to be spent, Gibson and Busey decide to go at it in a backyard brawl that comes from so far out of left field that it's laughable. Is it enough to ruin the film? Of course not, but it's little moments like this from a rookie screenwriter that keep Lethal Weapon from reaching beyond popcorn fare. 

Fortunately, our two leads help cement the film as a fun and veritable endeavor. After their rushed entrances, both Gibson and Glover begin to hit their stride as soon as they're standing by one another's sides. I am not incredibly well-versed with Glover's filmography, having only truly remembered his performances in Angels in the Outfield and Saw, but he does a fine job here playing the straight man opposite Gibson's over-the-top eccentricity. Unfortunately for good ol' Danny, Gibson's Riggs proves to be the more fascinating character, as is often the case when one half of a pair has to play by the rules. From moment to moment, we can safely assume we know what Murtaugh's next move will be, but we're always on edge wondering just what insane idea might pop into Riggs's head with each and every situation. Gibson plays the part to a tee, stretching his acting chops further than he needed to with the Mad Max franchise only a few years earlier. Riggs has suffered immensely in the time before the film takes place, and Gibson offers a few quality scenes of raw emotion that prove extremely effective. His freewheeling spirit also allows him to be the more comical of the pair, ultimately making him the more electric character. Though their back-and-forth works well, this is truly Mel Gibson's show from start to finish. 

While I know I've seen better quality buddy cop films in my time, Lethal Weapon does enough to be a fun entry into the sub-genre. Shane Black definitely suffers from growing pains as a writer, but the film still offers a number of twists and turns and keeps you invested from start to finish. Did the movie do enough to get me invested in three sequels? I can't quite say whether I'll make that particular plunge, but I was definitely glad to add this classic action-comedy to my personal repertoire.