Psycho Pension Qu’est-ce que c’est – Lethal Weapon Is A Real Live Wire

Before subsequent installments dialed up the yuks and irritating side characters, 1987’s Lethal Weapon had a satisfyingly hard edge to its big screen take on the buddy cop scenario, previously seen as a T.V trope. It had a fresh for the time “too old for this shit” family man detective partnered with a genuine loose cannon, always looking for a reason to damp down his grief and make it through one more day on L.A’s dirty streets. In a sense, Shane Black’s effervescent $250,000.00 dollar script revitalised the action adventure genre in the late ‘80’s and laid the groundwork for Die Hard’s “regular schmo” hero, putting character front and centre amidst spectacle.

“I’d always been a fan of noir cop thrillers,”Black told Empire. “They used to show heavily edited movies after Monday night football and I’d watch them on our tiny little TV set.” Lethal Weapon is essentially the nihilistic, tar-black humour of Dirty Harry, married to the Western tradition of a mentally scarred bad-ass gunslinger returning to the civilizing influence of the townsfolk, but having to “let the monster out of his cage” before he can rejoin the fold. The film dials up the mayhem and skill set on both sides of the law – detectives Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) are both Vietnam vets, Riggs a particularly skilled one, and so are the bad guys – ex-special forces, Shadow Company, carrying on where they left off in the war, smuggling drugs onto L.A’s streets from the jungles they once fought in.

Murtaugh has just turned 50 and is winding down on the job. Riggs is a suicidal narcotics officer mourning the death of his wife after a traffic accident. Transferred to homicide and partnered up with Murtaugh after an inauspicious introduction at the station house, Murtaugh clocks Riggs’ unfamiliar, unconventional looking frame maintaining his Baretta handgun, shouts an alarm, and is promptly roughhoused to the floor, gun in face. Meet the only detective on the force registered as a “Lethal Weapon”. Together they investigate the death of Amanda Hunsaker, the Daughter of Murtaugh’s war buddy Michael Hunsaker, who, it transpires, is in it up to his neck with the bad guys – they killed his daughter as a message when they found he’d been skimming from the money he laundered for them. Needless to say, things escalate and get personal real quick, shaking Murtaugh out of his slumber.

That’s not to say the film is deadly serious – Gibson plays Riggs with what he recalled being called at the time as a “nearly cuddly pathology” – he’s crazy, but fun to be around until the switch flips. Until Murtaugh witnesses for himself Rigg’s reckless approach to rooftop suicide negotiation – cuffing himself to the poor slob, tossing the key and jumping to a just inflated airbag – he has him pegged as a phony looking to collect his “psycho pension“. When Riggs swallows the barrel of Murtaugh’s gun and pulls the trigger, his partner just manages to block the hammer with his thumb. Shit just got real.

As he explodes about how it’s his birthday and how he’s made it this far, the pressure valve is released and they seem to come to some sort of rapprochement: “I just hope we stay alive long enough for me to buy you a present,” Riggs grins.

 

Credit for the chemistry between the leads must go to director Richard Donner and his wife. Gibson was his first choice for Riggs – he always had a mad glint in his eye (and now we know just how off the chain he can get in real life), but the director initially didn’t even consider that Murtaugh could be black. “[The script] just said, “Roger Murtaugh – going on 50.” Marion said to me, “Did you see Color Purple? What about Danny Glover?” And my first reaction was, “But he’s black!” And then I thought, “Whoa, fuck, here’s Mr. Liberal. What a brilliant idea…“ I felt stupid. It changed my way of thinking.”  A couple of scripted dodgy racial epithets and gay slurs aside, the mixed race buddy scenario opened the door for the film and sequels to display a social conscience explored through Murtaugh’s chaotic family dynamic, beginning with the “Free South Africa” sticker on the family refrigerator.

This, of course, leads to the villains of the sequel being South Africans laundering Krugerrands whilst waving “Diplomatic immunity” in our heroes faces, and Riggs galvanizing his partner with “We’re back, we’re bad, you’re black, I’m mad!

The action and violence of the film are spectacularly loud, often accompanied by the blaring Michael Kamen score startling the beejeezus out of you as, say, a helicopter rises from beyond a Pacific cliff front and Gary Busey’s icy Mr Joshua shoots someone through a drink carton. Black seems to love helicopter assaults – the clifftop house assault here is mirrored in Iron Man 3. I also love the hostage rendezvous in the desert as Murtaugh ditches Riggs to run and hide in sniper mode while the bad guys approach in cars with Roger’s teenage daughter Rianne, chopper covering them menacingly.

Speaking of Busey, he flipped on a dime from Oscar nomination as nice guy pop star Buddy Holly to an almost albino, stripped down malevolently calm shark in a suit. When Riggs and Murtaugh burn their drug operation down, he just goes for Murtaugh’s family rather than cut and run, almost like The Terminator – now there’s an idea…He and Riggs face off mano a mano, illuminated by squad car prowler lights and destroyed Christmas decorations in the filthy mire of Murtaugh’s torn-up lawn, soaked by a busted fire hydrant. Gibson and Busey trained in the Brazilian martial arts of Capoeira and Gracie Ju-jitsu.

“You ever meet anyone you didn’t kill?” Murtaugh asks Riggs at one point. Only the good guys, it seems. From the fatal high-rise swan dive of Amanda Hunsacker, to the bloody exit from the backstage torture den of Shadow Company’s nightclub front, where Riggs caps anyone who looks at him funny, and Murtaugh deliberately leaves the General to burn, trapped in his car, Lethal Weapon does exactly what it says in the title. But through his interaction with Roger and his family, Riggs finds a reason not to use that hollow point bullet he’s been saving for the time when he can’t go on anymore without his wife. He knocks on Roger’s door at the end and leaves it wrapped as a gift, laden with meaning. “Riggs is quite a romantic character,” according to Donner. “In the end, he finds a desire to live, and that’s a nice growth process.”  

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