Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Warner, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, pan&scan, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], French Digital Stereo, subtitles: English, French, Spanish, double side-single layer, 23 chapters, production notes, theatrical trailer, rated R, 110 min., $24.98, street date 3/25/97.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Sound, 1988.
Directed by Richard Donner. Starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitch Ryan, Tom Atkins.
Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is no ordinary cop. He's a Mad Max gone maniacal, a man whose killing expertise and suicidal recklessness make him a Lethal Weapon to anyone he works against. Or with.
Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is an easygoing homicide detective with a loving family, a big house and a pension he doesn't want to lose. Imagine Murtaugh's shock when he learns his new partner is a guy with nothing left to lose: wild-eyed, burnt-out Martin Riggs.
Lethal Weapon is the thrill-packed story of two Vietnam-vets-turned-cops who have just one other thing in common: both hate to work with partners. But their partnership becomes the key to survival when a routine murder investigation leads to all-out, take-no-prisoners, martial-arts-and-machine-guns war with an international heroin ring. Director Richard Donner moves that war at two speeds: fast and faster. Hot L.A. days and nights explode in one show-stopping scene after another.
When all is said and done, Lethal Weapon may embody the "typical" action film from the 1980s better than any other film. As I watched it from the vantage point of 1999, I couldn't help but think it looked like some sort of "greatest hits" reel. All the 1980s standbys were there: wisecracking cops, ultra-violence, and a hip soundtrack.
It's also a pretty good movie. After twelve years and three decreasingly interesting sequels, it's become hard to forget that the original Lethal Weapon possessed an edge that clearly quickly evaporated as the series became a franchise. Martin Riggs' (Mel Gibson) depression actually plays a role in the plot of Lethal Weapon, something it would never do again. It also makes him much more of a human being than the goofball supercop he became.
Not that Lethal Weapon in any way can be called realistic drama. It's a fairly cartoony little ride, but the historical perspective of how pathetically artificial and superficial the characters would become certainly makes them seem more true to life here. Gibson is not now nor has he ever been one of my favorite actors, but he gives Riggs the proper form of demented charm. I'm not sure I ever really believed Riggs was truly suicidal, but Gibson comes closer to a vivid performance here than he would now be capable of doing.
Danny Glover I do like pretty well, and he seems decently effective as middle aged family man Roger Murtaugh. However, I have a much harder time viewing his character with historical detachment than I do with Riggs simply because the aging cop nearing retirement as become such a cliche. I can't watch Murtaugh without thinking of the Simpsons clip that shows an excerpt from one of the fictitious McBane movies. That scene depicts Schwarzenegger- esque McBane at a diner with his buddy Schoie. On his last day before retirement, Schoie tells McBane that his meal of sausages is unhealthy and he can't wait to go out on his boat the "Live 4-ever." Of course, Schoie is immediately murdered by McBane's rival. (Well, it's a lot more entertaining if you actually see it!)
Anyway, the point I tried to make is that while Murtaugh may have been a fairly original character back in 1987, he's now a cliche, and it can be hard to appreciate Glover's work on its own. Still, he's pretty believable in the role, and he does a good job of grounding Riggs' psycho tendency.
On their own, neither actor performs at a level that seems particularly noteworthy, but as a pair, they do radiate a chemistry that undeniably adds appeal to the film. I think it's actually largely because of the winning combination of Gibson and Glover that the Lethal Weapon series has continued and prospered for so long. (No, that's not a good thing.) While the movies have increasingly relied on their banter and back and forth - to the exclusion of niceties such as plot and character development - I guess that shouldn't eradicate the fact that at the start of their run, at least, the two offered something different and compelling.
The plot for Lethal Weapon is your standard issue 1980s action movie kind of thing. I won't even bother retelling it in any detail; drugs and bad guys, heroes gotta rescue people, blah blah blah. While there's nothing new here, at least the story doesn't get in the way of the main assets of the movie: the chemistry between Gibson and Glover and the fairly well executed action sequences.
Richard Donner has directed many, many movies over the years, and he's a capable director, but never more than that. Generally, Donner gives you competently achieved action scenes that thrill to a degree but they never equal the glorious heights capable of more accomplished directors like James Cameron or John Woo. Donner's above average but nonetheless pretty pedestrian. He keeps Lethal Weapon moving at a decent clip, but he never threatens to make it a truly memorable experience; overall, it's interesting and compelling but not spectacular.
The same can largely be said for the DVD release of Lethal Weapon: it's decent and pretty good but not excellent. The best aspect of the DVD is its generally strong image. For most of the film, the picture looks sharp and well-defined with bold colors and little grain. Unfortunately, a few scenes appear hazy and flat; while these parts are in the distinct minority, they occur frequently enough for me to drop Lethal Weapon to a "picture" grade of "B+."
Less satisfying is the DVD's audio mix. This is one of those "soundtrack remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1" deals, and it's probably the least satisfactory one I've heard. It reminds me of those records from the 1960s that were "electronically reprocessed" to be in stereo; the sound creates a vague illusion of increased depth, but it gains a tremendously artificial nature that did not previously exist. The rear channels receive active usage, but the track maintains a "glorified Pro Logic" nature; I was unaware of many split surround effects. Dialogue and music also frequently sound canned and unrealistic. While these remastered 5.1 mixes can work effectively, Lethal Weapon is one case for which they probably should not have tampered with the original soundtrack.
The Lethal Weapon DVD also offers a pretty sad complement of supplementary materials. We get a trailer and some brief cast and crew biographies, and that's it! (The DVD's jacket lists "production notes," which apparently meant the bios, since I could find no evidence of any other background information on the film.) As the Lethal Weapon 4 DVD proves, it's a pretty weak set.
But ultimately, since Lethal Weapon is a much better film than its third sequel, this DVD makes for a much more worthwhile purchase. I can't give it a really strong recommendation - the film's pretty good but not great, and the DVD only merits a fairly decent rating - but Lethal Weapon is worth a look if you are a fan of the actors or the genre.