Richard Donner is one of my all-time favorite directors and completely underappreciated in the industry. I could never understand why.
I used to think it was because he spent so many years directing television that the industry didn’t give him his due respect. Not a single Academy Award nomination. Not even lifetime achievement.
He’s has mine. “The Omen”, “Superman”, “Scrooged” and the entire “Lethal Weapon” franchise.
The latter brought Mel Gibson to superstardom, and he was Donner’s choice. We saw the “Mad Max” trilogy, “Gallipoli” and “The Year of Living Dangerously” but “Lethal Weapon” brought box office levels that Gibson would rarely match until the 2000s.
Donner didn’t direct much after the 4th Lethal Weapon, capping a series that ran 11 years. A fifth Lethal Weapon was green-lit, but due to Donner’s untimely death, Mel Gibson will direct, fulfilling Donner’s wish.
Lethal Weapon merged the Dirty Harry cop movie with the buddy cop movie, with a comedic edge. Oddly enough, a pre-Die Hard Bruce Willis was considered for the role Mel Gibson played. But Donner wanted to work with Gibson, and the chemistry between Gibson and Danny Glover was undeniable.
Gibson plays Sgt. Martin Riggs, a vet-turned-cop who everyone thinks is crazy. He takes suicidal missions so fearlessly that many think he has a death wish. He’s paired with Sgt. Roger Murtaugh, a family man who only shoots to wound. He just turned 50 and is “getting too old for”…well, you know.
The plot involves drug trafficking and Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey in a career-changing performance) is an impressive foil for Riggs.
The plot is pretty much a McGuffin, in that it really doesn’t matter that it’s heroin and ex-special forces guys running it. This is about Riggs and Murtaugh, and every dramatic point in the film emphasizes their relationship. It’s no mistake that the climactic scene is both cops firing simultaneous shots at Joshua. They are one by then.
Pay attention to the musical score. Riggs and Murtaugh each have a theme with district instruments, and they merge when they finally become a true team.
The sequels were more comedic and Riggs and Murtaugh were an iron-clad pair from then on. This first film is darker, and you really never know if Riggs will continue his lone-wolf persona or be a partner.
If you haven’t seen this lately, it’s worth another take for that relationship arc alone.
The Highlight Reel
After helping a suicidal jumper leap from a tall building (a highlight in itself), Murtaugh lays it on the line and demands Riggs fess up – Is he faking this crazy stuff to draw a “psycho pension” or does he really want to kill himself. Riggs’ monologue is stuff of legend and likely got him case as Hamlet a few years later.
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