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.

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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.


The Goonies

January 24, 2011

Redrum? No, Goonies

During the end credits of Steven Spielberg’s 1941, we see a series of faces from earlier scenes in the movie, all engaged in various forms of shouting. At that point, you realize that the film has had one overriding, annoying characteristic: It’s very loud.

I was watching Spielberg’s new production, The Goonies, and trying to remember what it reminded me of, when that credit sequence flashed into my mind. The Goonies was exactly the same sort of experience: grating and noisy.

Aside from grating and noisy, the first thing that should be said about The Goonies is that it isn’t all Steven Spielberg’s fault. He co-produced and is credited with the idea for the movie, but his marvelous directorial touch is definitely absent. Spielberg chose veteran director Richard Donner (Superman, Ladyhawke) to helm. (The handsome exteriors were shot in Astoria and Cannon Beach, Ore.)

Somehow this just isn’t Donner’s kind of movie. The story—about a group of kids who stumble into an old-fashioned buried-treasure caper—calls for charm, wit, and high energy. It’s certainly got the latter, as the film follows the thrill-a-minute rhythms of a bad night in a haunted house. But when someone screams in horror every 30 seconds or so, it gets numbing after a while.

Spielberg’s idea was not a bad one. At least since Treasure Island, kids have dreamed of being lifted from humdrum reality into some exotic adventure, preferably one involving one-eyed pirates and treasure and pieces of eight. The Goonies begins with the kids (members of the titular society) discovering a crusty old map in an attic.

The map leads them to an abandoned lighthouse and the maze of catacombs (and the series of boobytraps) that snake underneath. Adding to the frenzy, and hot on the kids’ trail, is a trio of bloodthirsty criminals and their imbecile brother (played, under much freaky makeup, by John Matuzak, former head-basher for the Oakland Raiders—whose symbol is a one-eyed pirate).

The kids are drawn sketchily, with a reliance on type: There’s a fat one, an Asian one, a loudmouthed one. The only time a sense of wonder or innocence enters their adventure is toward the end, when they get closer to the treasure they are pursuing.

I would guess the cause of the film’s lack of distinctiveness is the distribution of authority; Donner may have been the director, but Spielberg was the head honcho, and worked closely with screenwriter Chris Columbus (who wrote Gremlins). Thus The Goonies has no particular sensibility behind it. It feels more like a movie made by a committee that thinks it knows what the young audience is going to want to see this summer.

They may be right; the preview audience I saw the film with seemed enthusiastic. But to me, The Goonies is strangely uningratiating—and a sense of ingratiation is exactly what the film needs the most.

First published in the Herald, June 1985

Millions loved it, and it ended up the #6 top-grossing film of 1985. If you were a kid, it seems to have been an important film, then and now. Just excruciating. Maybe, come to think of it, it actually is a Richard Donner kind of picture.


Scrooged

December 23, 2010

Scrooged looks suspiciously like the big movie disaster of the latter part of this year.

It’s a big-budget package with a major star, Bill Murray, and an attractive concept: As the title suggests, this is a modern version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

But this impressive package might have appeared to have too much going for it, because nobody seems to have gotten around to making a movie to go with the package. The package does have Bill Murray, who is one of the great comic actors of our time, in his first starring role since his 1984 tandem of Ghostbusters and The Razor’s Edge. But Murray is on his own here, heroically trying to make stiff lines sound funny, a manic cheerleader trying to get the crowd worked up when his team is losing by 50 points.

The screenplay is by Mitch Glazer and former “Saturday Night Live” sicko Michael O’Donoghue. It begins well, with some ferocious TV satire, as network president Murray unveils his offerings for Yuletide programming: a terrorist movie called The Night the Reindeer Died, “Robert Goulet’s Old-Fashioned Cajun Christmas,” featuring the singer in a swamp, and a live production of Scrooge, starring Buddy Hackett, with Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim.

Murray’s a Scrooge himself, a greedy climber who fires one of his executives (Bobcat Goldthwait) just before the holiday and forces his secretary (Alfre Woodard) to work late on Christmas Eve. But in the midst of his meanness, he’s visited by a former associate (John Forsythe), who is now dead and residing below. The ghosts of Christmas Past (David Johansen), Present (Carol Kane), and Future cannot be far away.

There are some funny bits in the movie, as when Murray sees supernatural visions while lunching with his unamused boss (Robert Mitchum). But there are too many long stretches between the good parts, and the ghostly visits are uninspired (Carol Kane’s role relies on the single, and irrelevant, joke of beating Murray to a pulp).

Meanwhile, Murray attempts to rekindle an old romance with a social worker (Karen Allen), who has given her life to helping others. But when he visits her in the soup kitchen she runs, he’s dismayed by the inefficiency; he suggest she fire the tireless volunteers: “They’re incompetent!”

Director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon) doesn’t seem to have much feel for comedy. He shoots a disproportionate amount of the movie in close-up, an approach that emphasizes the pockmarks on Murray’s face and limits the comedian’s loosey-goosey, improvisational physicality. When in doubt, which appears to be frequently, Donner relies on Murray to scream a line reading as loudly as possible.

For some reason, at the happy ending, someone decided that the entire cast should sing to the audience. It makes for one of the screwiest finales in recent memory, a smiley-face button tacked on to an otherwise appropriately nasty movie. Murray’s old film critic from “Saturday Night Live” would’ve trashed it.

First published in the Herald, November 1988

Scrooged has a following, I guess especially among people who grew up with it. When it comes to sideways showbiz-inflected adaptations of Dickens, I’ll take Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol every time. I sort of resent Murray for being so little in movies in the 1980s; after Stripes, he could have done anything, but his actual output is extremely slim. He came across as so gloriously free and untethered back then – a shambling monument to the subversive impulse – and it would’ve been great to have seen him more. Unless the movies were like Scrooged, in which case maybe he was right.