Clichés have to come from somewhere. Believe it or not, there was a time when the by-the-book cop’s partner was not on the edge, where hordes of interchangeable henchmen packing high tech automatic weapons did not roam our cities, when the hero was neither on the verge of retirement or too old for this . . . stuff. Then, long ago, everything changed.
For the movie anthropologist, Lethal Weapon (1987) is the missing link. It is the Big Bang of movies with big bangs. It is the well-spring of a hundred lame imitations, a few good ones, and a lot of parodies. It is where the most hackneyed of buddy-cop movie clichés were born. At the time, they were awesome.
It is a movie about many things beyond the slam-bam action and witty banter, including about getting older and looking back, which is particularly apt here. Looking back at the 1980’s, which I spent in high school, at UC San Diego (go whatever the hell your mascot is – I was too busy partying to care) and the Army, what is striking is how many definitive movies came along and how they led to Hollywood’s present – for better or for worse. Lethal Weapon remains an archetypal specimen of the kind of movie only Hollywood can make well (despite how often it does it badly) – slick popcorn adventure/comedies with memorable action set-pieces paired with laugh-out-loud hilarity and featuring big stars and top shelf production values.
People natter about the late-60’s and early-70’s as a second Hollywood golden age, but the great films of those years – the Godfathers, the American Graffitis, the Chinatowns did not really change anything. Sure, they made you look at movies differently, but you look at what flashes across today’s screens and there is no indication these movies ever existed. Rather, it was in the later 1970’s, starting with Jaws (1975) through Star Wars (1977), that really began the trends we see today – the rollercoaster thriller.
Following after in the 1980’s, you would go to the movies and constantly see something new. The great 48 Hours (1982) blew minds with violence and profanity blended with Eddie Murphy’s boundary pushing racial humor. In 1984, The Terminator set down an archetype of slick, no-flab Roger Corman-esque pulp matched to a real budget and a charismatic superstar wielding the latest high-powered weaponry. Dirty Harry’s .44 magnum wheel gun went right out the window. Lethal Weapon was the next logical step.
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Lethal Weapon came out around spring break in 1987. I was taking finals in my second-to-last trimester of senior year, which for me meant not taking any finals at all because I chose only the lamest, easiest classes to run out the clock, like Introduction to Feminist Theater 101. We thought the movie would be cool – the ads looked okay and back then Mel Gibson was a star instead of a cautionary example – so we beered up and made our way to the theater.
Holy crap – we had never seen anything like it. But boy, would we ever see it again. We had just seen the template for every action movie that would follow over the next two and a half decades.
Re-watch it sometime while playing my favorite drinking game, “Spot the Cliché!” Start with the opening credits in that mod, slanted typeface, which looks like an italicized Franklin Gothic font. When The Simpsons did its Biblical action movie parody, there they were again. Chug, chug.
Then you have Danny Glover’s character Detective Murtaugh introduced with a comfortable but chaotic home life. Chug. He’s just about to retire. Chug. Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs is an ex-special forces guy. Chug. He has a wild shootout at a Christmas tree lot in which he single handedly dispatches a herd of thugs with his trusty Beretta 92F, aka the M9 pistol. This demonstrates both his awesomeness as well as his craziness – and starts us on yet another beer!
Riggs and Murtaugh team up, hating each other at first. Chug. An old Army pal of Murtaugh asks him to investigate the death of his daughter. Chug. This uncovers a group of drug importers. Chug. Riggs and Murtaugh wisecrack and shoot their way across LA to uncover the conspiracy. Chug.
Let’s just assume a cliché-fueled chug from here on in after every plot point, shall we?
During their escapades a house detonates in front of them – parodied in The Other Guys but back in 1986 unexpected and kind of cool. A gunman with a machine gun in a helicopter materializes out of nowhere – apparently the chopper was that sneaky, silent kind that exists only in action movies – to kill a character in mid-exposition with a machine gun. They also talk a jumper off a roof – another point parodied in Will Ferrell’s latest. And Murtaugh announces – several times – that he’s too old for this . . . stuff.
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Eventually they get captured and abused – pretty graphically too. The bad guys take Murtaugh’s daughter hostage and our heroes proceed to kill everyone in their way. The final MMA fight between Gibson and the terrific Gary Busey as psycho villain Mr. Joshua is the climax – and yes, they do kill the guy when he comes back after you think it’s all over.
If you’ve dared the Chug-Per-Cliché Challenge, just make sure you have someone to help you find your way to your bed to sleep it off.
Some interesting points: One the prevalence of Vietnam as a theme. Both Riggs and Murtaugh are veterans, as is the father of the dead girl and all of the bad guys. Remember that America pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, so you could be a Vietnam vet and in your early thirties at the time this movie was made (I was surprised to realize that this week is the 20th anniversary of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, which led to Desert Storm, yet I recall it like yesterday). It was one of the first non-artsy, non-message, pure entertainment movies to discuss Vietnam at all.
Richard Donner, the director, and Glover were no conservatives. Today, Glover can’t wait to slobber all over scummy Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. In Lethal Weapon, they were only too happy to have CIA mercenaries as villains. In the unworthy sequels, the villains include South Africans and gun runners – hilariously, one of the most gun obsessed film series of all times rails against guns – at least guns for the rest of us.
And the guns…. All the villains carried the latest weapons – H&K MP5s or M16s. Back in 1986, when we wore onions on our belts because it was the style of the day, cops carried .38 revolvers or maybe a M1911A1 .45. Now, here was a cop carrying the most then-cutting edge of automatics, the Beretta – Riggs remarks about Murtaugh’s .38 that “A lot of old timers carry those.” And the way Gibson used his automatic was remarkable too – he fired fast, accurately and casually, and he shoots a couple guys almost off-handedly. There had never been anything like it on screen before. I’ve owned and carried the M9 for well over a decade and I’ve never been nearly as comfortable with it as Gibson makes himself appear on screen. Now that’s conservative acting.
This is actually a great performance by Mel Gibson. When he sticks his gun to his head to try to kill himself, there was a level of convincing torment in the character evoked by Gibson’s performance that really is better than a flick like this deserves. The character is definitely troubled, and whether Gibson is performing or – as his recent meltdowns indicate – merely behaving, you buy it lock, stock and smoking barrel. Another aspect is the manifestation of the Mel Martyr Complex – the torture scene where they work him over is brutal. But then, Mel’s characters always find themselves brutalized – look at how he is abused as Mad Max in The Road Warrior or in the climax of Braveheart. If you are a shrink and Mel Gibson shows up at your office, ka-ching! You can feel pretty safe about dropping a down payment on that new BMW 750i.
Lethal Weapon holds up remarkably well (and a big part of the credit goes to Shane Black’s script) – it’s still exciting, funny and its one of those movies you can come across half-way through and watch to the end. A hundred other films bear its fingerprints – Die Hard (1988) and Kick-Ass (2010) both carry its DNA, as do many others. For better or worse, The Godfather is a much better film but Lethal Weapon has influenced many more movies than it ever will.
And it’s not likely any of us will ever be too old for this…stuff…anytime soon.