The first of Shane Black’s Christmas-set screenplays – “It’s just a thing of beauty” he told Entertainment Weekly of the season to be jolly – isn’t perhaps his most essentially so. But then, the most essentially Shane Black Christmas-set movie is one where his sole contribution was furnishing the title (producer Joel Silver added a Christmas setting to Die Hard when he saw how it added a certain something to Lethal Weapon). Thematically, however, with forgiveness and family foregrounded, through the cathartic infliction of ultra-violence, nothing could be more festive.
On that level, the opening, as Jingle Bell Rock takes a woozy turn when Amanda Hunsaker (Jackie Swanson) dive offs a skyscraper, effectively informs us that it will remain a contrasting backdrop to grim proceedings. Indeed, the most Christmassy scene was one added by Jeffrey Boam (later writer of Lethal Weapons 2 and 3), in an attempt by director Richard Donner to water down the darkness of Black’s latest draft.
The shootout at the Christmas tree lot replaced the sniper scene that can be seen on the “director’s cut” DVD. It’s an effective introduction to Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs, one you wouldn’t know wasn’t penned by Black if you hadn’t been told, with Riggs announcing his suicidal bent – “You think I’m crazy?” – along with Gibson’s Three Stooges obsession (as to where Riggs’ tendencies to homophobic and racist slurs comes from, well, I’ll leave that for you to decide). The subsequent jumper scene – “Do you really wanna jump? Do you wanna?” – merely serves to underline his disposition.
If I can present the case for the prosecution for a moment, much as I’ve enjoyed the Lethal Weapon series, I’ve never counted it as one of my favourites of the action genre. Even here, before the “darker” tenor of the lead character has been watered down through comedy sidekicks and romantic interests, the tendency to overplay tends to lessen the potential impact. Gibson is really up to bug-eyed eleven, perhaps just that little bit too indulged by Donner. His interplay and chemistry with Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh, just turning fifty and saddled with a new partner as reckless as he is reserved, is never less than terrific, but the Nam vet glamour-PTSD and grieving widower side is too heightened to be truly affecting.
Gibson’s the main attraction, which is why I think I’d previously paid less attention to just how great his co-star is. Glover gets it exactly. Both are playing about a decade older than they were at the time, both entirely convincingly (Gibson’s mid-80s period finds him gaining a good decade of hard living in about half that time). Glover’s hangdog weariness is as perfect here as it would be out of place in Predator 2 a few years later.
While Murtaugh’s attempts to hold his new partner in check are commendably for nought, it’s in his domestic interactions that he really shines, be it fretting over the big Five-O or putting on a show when he invites Riggs round for dinner. And his family are wonderful, and must have enjoyed the ensemble playing – or the cheques – as they would all return for the sequels: Darlene Love as Roger’s affectionately long-suffering wife, Traci Wolfe as his Riggs-smitten eldest daughter Rianne and Ebonie Smith and Damon Hines as the cheeky kids (dad’s attempts to rap and their responses are hilarious for their naturalism).
If this side goes great guns, where the picture stumbles slightly is in its failure to make the villains worthy or interesting. Gary Busey successfully reinvents himself as a bad guy in the form of blonde merc Mr Joshua, showing his steel by failing to flinch when a lighter is scorching his flesh, but he and Mitchell Ryan’s McAllister lack the wit and flair of later Black bad guys. There’s potential early on, with the intrigue of Nam connections announced by a kid witnessing Busey’s special forces tattoo, along with the mentions of Air America (later a Gibbo movie, and then the basis for a Tom Cruise one) and CIA heroin smuggling, but once Rianne has been kidnapped, there isn’t much room left for detective work.
As for the action, Donner handles the task with a mixture of mild aplomb and ’80s excess. The rain-drenched finale, a fight between Riggs and Mr Joshua, has always struck me as a bit of a fizzle, and those moments that go overboard – Riggs rolling and shooting during the lot scene – land just that wrong side of absurd. It has to be said that Michael Kamen doesn’t help matters, ladling on the sax at any given opportunity (his and Eric Clapton’s score is often great, though, and he’d become a fixture of Silver productions for good reason).
The balance isn’t as effective here as in say Predator, where the entire movie was intentionally pitched on an absurd, homoerotic level, such that scenes like Riggs and Murtaugh showing off their heroic cred during sadistic/titillating torture tip into the laughable. The dialogue too tends to the overripe at times (“Are you really crazy, or are you as good as they say you are?”)
On the other hand, the preceding lakebed sequence, as Riggs hides out with a sniper’s rifle during the exchange of Murtaugh and his daughter, is a set piece highlight of which Donner can be justifiably proud. And Riggs’ reintegration into society (he’s cured – at least until Patsy Kensit gets got) is a heart-warming end note, amid discussions of the quality of Murtaugh’s wife’s cooking.
And while Die Hard gets all the credit – rightly so for its own blend of festive thuggery and bloodletting in aid of restoring the nuclear family – Lethal Weapon is really the movie responsible for morphing the action movie from muscle-bound hulks to respectable actors (Willis, Gibson). You might argue that happened at the start of the decade with Indiana Jones, or even that Eddie Murphy found his way in there first, kind of, but the adult action flicks of Silver and Simpson/Bruckheimer were a thing apart, and it was principally Gibson (and Glover) who first offered them an air of respectability. Even if Mel’s mullet is obviously a no-no under any artistic criteria.