Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Film Appreciation - 30 Years with Riggs and Murtaugh

Cody Hamman celebrates 30 years of Lethal Weapon for Film Appreciation.

1987 was a great year to be Shane Black. Not just because he got a co-writing credit on director Fred Dekker's monster mash classic The Monster Squad, and not just because he was given an acting role in the sci-fi thriller classic Predator because director John McTiernan wanted him on set to polish the script when/if necessary. There was a third major event in Black's career that year - before Predator and The Monster Squad were released, there was another movie that was released in theatres that was written by Black. Lethal Weapon. It was his first produced screenplay, and it instantly became an action classic. Credits on three classics in a year? That's an accomplishment beyond what most people getting started in the entertainment business would even dare to dream of.

Directed by Richard Donner (The Omen, Superman, The Goonies), the film begins in a deeply striking way, and not with the sort of scene you would expect from a movie that would spark a franchise. A helicopter shot takes us over Los Angeles while "Jingle Bell Rock" by Bobby Helms plays on the soundtrack - because, like most Shane Black projects, Lethal Weapon is set during the Christmas season. Then "Jingle Bell Rock" is replaced by a moody piece of the score composed by Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton. The helicopter shot spots an open balcony door on the top floor of a tall apartment building and the camera pushes in so we can get a look inside this apartment.

In the apartment is a young woman named Amanda Hunsaker (Jackie Swanson), half naked and drugged out of her mind. Amanda is so high that she gets the idea that it might be a good thing to climb out on the balcony railing... and then leap off of it. I was a very young child when I was getting my first look at Lethal Weapon, and I always found these final moments in Amanda Hunsaker's life to be chilling and disturbing.

We're then introduced to the two police officers who will be working the Hunsaker case. Danny Glover plays ten years older than himself to portray Roger Murtaugh, a family man who has just celebrated his 50th birthday. The Murtaugh household seems like a fun place that's full of love, a stark contrast to the lonely life of Murtaugh's new partner Martin Riggs - Mel Gibson, playing eight years older than himself. Riggs' wife was recently killed in a car accident, and he has sunk into such a deep depression that the police psychologist suspects that he may have had a psychotic break. He certainly seems to be out of his mind, acting like a maniac as he wades into dangerous situations, whether that be busting drug dealers, stopping shooters (in the extended cut), or talking a jumper off a ledge in an unconventional way, with total disregard for his own well-being. It's clear that he's perfectly fine with the idea of dying in the line of duty. When he's off duty he drinks too much and contemplates suicide.

Murtaugh doesn't think much of his new partner at first, complaining that "I'm too old for this shit", but they gradually bond and come around to liking, respecting, and caring for each other. It's the typical buddy cop scenario, but one with a great pair of characters. Gibson and Glover do wonderful work bringing Riggs and Murtaugh to life, making them endearing and memorable. It helps that Riggs, through all of his darkness, is still an affable guy with a good sense of humor. He especially loves the Three Stooges.

As frequently demonstrated in his films, Black is a genius at crafting detective stories that harken back to the hard-boiled tales of yesteryear, and he crafted an intriguing mystery for Riggs and Murtaugh to solve here. Amanda Hunsaker's death wasn't an accident or suicide, her drugs had been spiked, she was going to die whether she stepped off that balcony or not. Murtaugh's determination to solve the case is bolstered by the fact that he has a personal connection to it: he is a Vietnam veteran (as is Riggs) and served with Amanda's father Michael, who is played by the great Tom Atkins, an actor best known for his work in the horror genre. Michael saved Murtaugh's life in the war and Murtaugh owes him for that.

Enduring shootouts, house explosions, and assassination attempts, Riggs and Murtaugh are eventually able to deduce that everything really ties back into things that happened in Vietnam, which is why one of the main villains turns out to have the same Special Forces tattoo that Riggs has. And when the villains figure out who's on their trail, they decide to make things even more personal, adding some intense stakes into the climax of the film.

The head of the bad guys is Mitchell Ryan as a drug runner known as The General, but the villain who makes the biggest impression is Mr. Joshua, the head of The General's mercenary security team, played by Gary Busey. Busey doesn't play this role as broad as many of his others, going for a more subdued, cold-blooded insanity. He is Riggs' fellow former Special Forces soldier, he has the same training and martial arts skills Riggs has - they are a perfect match for each other, allowing them to engage in a hell of a brawl.

Lethal Weapon is one of the greatest action films ever made, and it balances out its action sequences with character work and a good, interesting story. Which is why it ranks so highly in the action genre - the action wouldn't matter as much if you didn't care about the characters or what they were doing. You're invested in Riggs and Murtaugh, you want to see them come through this, and when the bad guys are giving them trouble, you want to see them kick some ass. This is a very engaging film.

It makes sense that this was followed by a series of sequels, because even though everything is wrapped up before the end credits start to roll, you're left wanting to spend more time with Riggs and Murtaugh. You want to see more of Gibson and Glover in these roles. The actors and Donner gave the audience more, returning for all three sequels.

I've been watching Lethal Weapon since I was a kid, it was one of those movies that played out over and over on the TV in my house and also on the TV in my maternal grandmother's house. I watched it with various family members, I watched it by myself. I've been watching it for about thirty years now, and will continue revisiting it from time to time. It's a movie that holds up no matter how much time passes or how many dozens of viewings you've already had of it.

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