The latter stems from the buddy-cop formula that has proven popular, especially lately. It’s a predictable mismatch: The 50-year-old veteran (Danny Glover) draws duty with a young pistol (Mel Gibson) who’s had suicidal tendencies since the death of his wife.
Gibson’s a hotshot, given to recklessness on duty (in these movies, this is almost always qualified by someone saying, “But hey, he’s a good cop”). When he confronts a guy threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a rooftop, Gibson claps the cuffs on the bewildered man and takes the jump—onto the huge air cushion in the street below. Glover, a family man, goes by the book and doesn’t like to unholster his gun. The last thing he wants is a livewire beside him.
Got the picture? You and a million other screenwriters.
The only new wrinkle is Gibson’s self-destructiveness, but the film generally backs away from this, and keeps to a jokey style even as bodies are dropping up, down, and sideways. (The plot is something about murderous ex-CIA men importing heroin from Southeast Asia.)
The effective, and frequently enjoyable, muscularity comes from the chemistry between Glover and Gibson, plus director Richard Donner’s aggressive feel for action. You can be perfectly aware from scene to scene that the thing doesn’t make any sense, but Donner’s energetic forward motion carries it from one charged situation to the next. (He tried the same tack in The Goonies, but that film was just too unpleasant to begin with.)
He’s loaded the movie with detestable villains—notably a trimmed-down, platinum-haired Gary Busey—and some incredible hardware. Naturally, the villains and the hardware come together in an extended bloodletting climax, and they all get blown up good. In fact, Lethal Weapon may set some sort of record for the phenomenon of wasting every single villain by the time it’s over.
All of these things, assembled and weighed like a fine machine, make for an effective package. It’s sure to be a hit, and there’s already industry talk of a sequel. But there’s also something cold about its slickness, as though it were just a bit too well-oiled for its own good.
First published in the Herald, March 5, 1987
Yes, the buddy-cop movie was already worn out by the time the first Lethal Weapon movie opened. And indeed it was a big hit—there was no missing its appeal—and it launched not only one of the signature franchises of the time but dozens of knock-offs. I have never revisited any of the LW pictures, and I’m all right with that.