The Year of Living Dangerously

November 9, 2012

There’s this passage in the dialogue of The Year of Living Dangerously that can be turned back on the film itself so ironically that few reviewers—including this one—will be able to resist quoting it. Radio correspondent Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) is taken to task by his photographer/travel guide/guru, Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), about an overly melodramatic news report the green journalist has made concerning the terrible conditions in current (1965) Jarkarta, Indonesia, a place that is sinking into poverty as it teeters on the edge of civil war. Guy’s piece was overblown, says Billy; Guy hammered points home and repeated himself, instead of letting the facts speak for themselves.

That happens to be an on-target assessment of the trouble with YOLD—things that would be better left for the viewer to discover on his own are carefully explained in the dialogue, and sometimes more than once. This practice is particularly discouraging with regard to the character of Billy, the mystically-inclined mulatto dwarf (and it’s especially frustrating because it mars a fascinating performance by Linda Hunt, a screen natural).

Billy’s observations—noted in a kind of diary, on which we eavesdrop—get flakier and more pretentious as the movie goes along, spelling out plot points as well as character motivations. Maybe director Peter Weir thinks this relieves him of some of his story-telling duties; and perhaps that explains why this narrative is so uncompelling. Weir goes for atmosphere instead, and the story starts going astray—at its own languid pace.

Even the love story, between Hamilton and gorgeous British Embassy attaché Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) gets lost in the woozy ambience, although there’s a good sequence when Jill decides to give in to Guy’s suggestions of romance, and she walks down a street in the warm Jakarta rain; she’s soaked to the bone when she confronts Guy in the hallways outside his office, and it gives a special weirdness to the love scene that transpires. That kind of special weirdness has been a trademark of Peter Weir’s films in the past; The Year of Living Dangerously has a disappointing shortage of such strategies, which I guess has a lot to do with why it’s not my favorite Year.

First published in The Informer, February 1983

I did see this film again a few years ago, after reading the novel on which it’s based, and liked the movie very much. I think Weir’s ability to create his mysterious evocation of place and space was the deciding factor in my positive re-acquaintance with the film, although there’s a lot to be said for the human presence of Linda Hunt, and also Gibson-Weaver, a handsome duo. I still remember David Ansen writing in Newsweek (a writer I often felt in tune with back then) about the movie-movie gratification of the two stars finally getting into the clinches and laying some serious osculation on each other. He didn’t put it like that.

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Lethal Weapon 2

March 19, 2012

While I was watching Lethal Weapon 2, I kind of enjoyed it. By the time I walked to my car afterward, it was already turning sour. And by the time I was home, I was actively disliking it. It’s one of those.

Like its predecessor, Lethal Weapon 2 is hard, fast, and dangerous, a slick Hollywood entertainment made by pros who know how to get the job done. The film’s two hours pass by quickly, what with all the car chases, machine-gunnings, ship-burnings, and house-demolishings. (There’s also a bomb attached to a toilet seat.) Yes, Lethal Weapon 2 is full of action, enough for five such movies.

Sandwiched in between the explosions are glimpses of the friendship of the two cops we met in the first Lethal Weapon: Riggs (Mel Gibson), the crazy, hair-trigger chap, and Murtaugh (Danny Glover), the calm family man. Some of their banter is fun to listen to (there’s an amusing thing early on involving Murtaugh’s daughter and her appearance in a TV condom commercial), but most of their wisecracks are drowned out by the sound of flying bullets.

Director Richard Donner, a once decent talent whose recent work has included the tired Scrooged, also directed the first Lethal Weapon. As though to keep things interesting, he has added a current affairs spin to the bad guys: They’re South African emissaries, blond sleazeballs with funny accents who can’t be arrested because of diplomatic immunity.

Donner also throws in a mob witness (Joe Pesci), who’s supposed to be guarded by Murtaugh and Riggs. This guy doesn’t have a whole lot to do except add pepper to the dialogue between our heroes (and Pesci has one hilarious rap on the importance of avoiding drive-through windows at fast-good restaurants). Other than that, he’s from a different movie.

But then this film feels like several different movies all mixed together. One has a James Bond-size villain (Joss Ackland), one provides a bit of squeeze (Patsy Kensit) for Riggs, one provides a fitting anti-apartheid message, another gives motivation for Riggs’ explosion of violence at the end.

It’s entertaining, but in a mechanical, cynically constructed way. Here’s hoping this sequel really is lethal.

First published in the Herald, July 9, 1989

It wasn’t the end, of course. I suppose this one must be better than the sequels that followed, although I would never want to go back and find out.


Lethal Weapon

August 26, 2011

Lethal Weapon is Hollywood filmmaking at its most muscular. Also, unfortunately, at its least original.

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.