Tuesday, September 11, 2018

LETHAL WEAPON (1987)


From 1989 to somewhere around 1993, I was obsessed with Mel Gibson. There are a lot of people who know me now who don't know this fact about me. But there is probably no one who knew me during those years who doesn't know this fact about me. I turned 14 in 1989, and I was 18 in 1993. The years in between were spent in intense study of all things Mel Gibson.

The obsession was due primarily to the Richard Donner-directed and Shane Black-scripted trash action classic LETHAL WEAPON. The movie was released in 1987 when I was far too young to see it. I had an older cousin who saw it, though, and he said it kicked ass. When I finally saw it, I suspected it was the greatest movie ever made. At the very least, I knew for certain that it was the greatest movie I'd ever seen.

Now I'm a 43-year-old cinephile. I've spent most of the last 25 years or so obsessed with different kinds of films and filmmakers. Film noir. Westerns. Musicals. Bogart. Welles. Bergman (both of them). Judy fucking Garland. I've probably seen, at least once, a majority of the movies that would be considered serious classics of the cinema. Many of those, I've seen more than once. A few I've seen over and over and over again.

But if I had to wager on the movie I've seen the most times, I would have to sheepishly admit it's probably LETHAL WEAPON. And, keep in mind, I've only seen it maybe once or twice in the last ten years. That means that by the mid-nineties I'd watched it, what? 50 times? 60? I watched it with the passion of youth. I watched it the way some kids in the 90s listened to Pearl Jam or Nirvana albums.

These reflections were triggered by seeing the movie for the first time in a very long time at a midnight showing at Chicago's Music Box Theater.  It was like running into a friend you haven't seen since high school.

LETHAL WEAPON is an 80s action movie. In some ways, it's the ultimate 80s action movie. DIE HARD is an infinitely better film, but it was pointing the way out of the 80s. DIE HARD had a high tech sheen to it that seemed to herald the breakthrough of something like T2: JUDGEMENT DAY. LETHAL WEAPON, on the other hand, was all about guns, tits, and mullets. LETHAL WEAPON was 80s trash and proud of it. 

This post isn't about how I watched this dated 80s action movie and realized it's trash. I think I always knew it was trash--albeit, highly efficient trash. And it's been years now since I caught up to the fact that film is casually homophobic, racist, and sexist. None of this is still surprising to me.

What is surprising is how bad Mel Gibson is in most of it. Because Mel's a good actor. His performance in BRAVEHEART is appropriately epic, while he's tightly restrained in THE ROAD WARRIOR. His HAMLET wasn't an embarrassment. His best performances are as the imperiled fathers in RANSOM, SIGNS, and THE BEAVER (a truly weird film, sure, but there's no denying that Mel taps into a deep well of self-loathing and depression in it). Mel can, when he puts his mind to it, act. Just not here. More on that in a second. 

In LETHAL WEAPON Mel plays LA cop Martin Riggs. He's suicidal because his wife has recently died, so--for reasons that make no sense whatsoever--he's transferred from narcotics to homicide. Which is sort of like getting a promotion, but never mind. He gets paired up with family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and they set out to solve a murder that almost immediately leads them to a gang of Vietnam-era mercenaries turned drug smugglers. Together Riggs and Murtaugh kill all these assholes and Riggs learns to live again.   

Mel doesn't so much give a performance here as much as he does a kind of macho-vogue. He's beautiful in this movie. This is prime Mel Gibson as a sex symbol, with a flared mullet sculpted by a stylist simply credited as "Ramsey". In his first shot in the movie, we find Mel naked in bed, waking up with a lit cigarette in his mouth and a loaded 9mm on the pillow beside him. He gets up and drags a beer out of the fridge. Despite being a depressive who guzzles booze for breakfast he's got about 8% body fat and a perfect ass. The camera regards him like a rock star. His hair is sculpted and so's that ass. Mel's not here to act. Mel's here to project beauty and danger. He's here to kill assholes, to run down the street barechested with a machine gun, to jump, to fight, and to kill even more assholes.

[A long digression: We'll find out in LW2 that Victoria Lynn Riggs was actually murdered by drug dealers who covered it up by making it look like a car wreck. Of course. This will allow Riggs to kill some more to purge his pain. 80s action films always argue that the surest way through personal turmoil is the wholesale slaughter of assholes. Here's the thing, though, LETHAL WEAPON itself doesn't feel like it's supposed to be a franchise starter. It feels like Shane Black set out to make a movie, rather than part one of a series. This might explain the grittiness of the original film, like its subplot about a dead porn actress, or the weird sexual tension between Riggs and Murtaugh's 16 year old daughter. None of this would fly in a film today, especially a film that could potentially kick off a billion dollar franchise.] 

Here's the thing: on one level it's weird that a 14 year old religiously indoctrinated Arkansas kid like me became obsessed with this movie. LETHAL WEAPON is an LA movie. It's very LA, in fact. (And that aspect of it really pops on the big screen as the detectives go up into the Hollywood hills.)  It's an adult movie in the sense that it has a lot of adult material: nudity, profanity, violence, suicidal despair.

But every bit of it--even the despair--is pitched at the level of an eighth grader. LETHAL WEAPON is a big rock power ballad of a movie. It's got no depth, just emotional bombast. Riggs isn't just sad, he's suicidal, and he's not just suicidal, he's SUICIDAL, with bug eyes and flared nostrils to prove it. Mel Gibson's performance in this film is about as subtle as a kick to the jaw, but that's in keeping with the tone of the movie. You can't croon a rock power ballad, you have to belt it out. The scene where Riggs almost kills himself is probably the scene that made Mel Gibson a superstar. The rest of the movie's talk of suicide rings hollow and cheap (the showdown between Riggs and Murtaugh later on-- "Don't tempt me, man!" --is overdone and unconvincing), but this almost wordless scene is just Mel and a gun and all the emotion the actor can dredge up from his soul. It's the scene that made people think "That handsome son of a bitch can emote." Riggs kills 17 assholes in this movie and everyone of them is just catharsis, the releasing of the tension of the earlier suicide scene. That's the kind of thing my 14 year old self could hold on to.

The success of this movie launched three more sequels, and while it's interesting to see how the movie shifted into a series, it's also easy to see how the filmmakers lost touch with that series. LETHAL WEAPON 2 (1989) immediately starts to turn everything into a comedy. Shane Black wanted to kill Riggs off. The suits wouldn't let him. So Shane Black was out. No more talk of suicide and no more grit. It was time to start printing money. Consequently, LW2 is still hyper-violent but it doesn't linger on pain, and there are no torture sequences like the first film. It's bigger and broader, like a cartoon. (Indeed, the film starts with the Looney Tunes fanfare.) The body count goes over the top with glee, and there's longer and larger set pieces. (Riggs pulls down a house on stilts with his truck.) The heroes end up in each other's arms, laughing. The film also introduced Joe Pesci as comic relief in a movie already popping with jokes, and that was the end of LETHAL WEAPON. The tepid LW3 brought back Pesci for no good reason (and to diminishing returns), and in an R-rated movie it gave Mel a PG-love interest in Rene Russo. It made both the violence and the humor broader, which is to say that the film is neither exciting nor funny. It also tried, paradoxically, to get serious and deliver a hamfisted gun control message in between all the shootouts glorifying guns and all the jokes making light of police brutality. And LW4...well, shit, I don't really even remember it. Jet Li was the bad guy and he gets double-teamed by Riggs and Murtaugh, which always struck me as kind of a punk move on the part of the cops. Chris Rock, just emerging as the greatest stand up comic of his generation, is also in the movie to try to give someone, anyone, a reason to see it. It's all just...bad. And Riggs has short hair. What the hell's the point of a LETHAL WEAPON movie without a mullet?  

Since Donner directed all four movies and the principal cast returned for all four, the last movie ends with a group photo to underscore the family atmosphere on the set. Yet the films themselves reveal that, cut loose from Shane Black's trash-vision, Donner didn't really know what to do with LETHAL WEAPON. As the series went on it got more and more intellectually mangled. Donner tried to turn it into a kind of family comedy (the tits and ass and torture were out by LW3), while also trumpeting simplistic liberal "messages" (apartheid is bad, guns are bad, Chinese slave labor is bad). But those messages are stuffed clumsily into what is essentially the old DIRTY HARRY stroke-fantasy of good guy fascist cops gunning down dozens of people with righteous impunity because, after all, criminals are just a bunch of remorseless assholes.

I lost interest in all of this long before the final credits rolled on the last movie. The WEAPON sequels, to one degree or another, all feel superfluous. 

The original LETHAL WEAPON is different, at least for me. It's a relic of the 80s, which is to say that it's a relic of my own childhood. Why did I love it? Because in its dumb Joel Silver-produced way, it had a sense of loneliness and isolation. I certainly felt that in my teen years. It presented uncomfortable emotions I understood and it offered hyper-masculine remedies: Toughness. Rough humor. Male bonding. Violence.

Of course, as I got older I came to learn that these weren't exactly the best remedies to uncomfortable emotions. But when I watch LETHAL WEAPON I'm certainly not looking for moral instruction. I'm not even looking for entertainment anymore because when I watch it now, I can no longer simply see a trashy 80s action movie. Instead, I see the kid watching it and learning to love the movies, falling in love with their raw speed and fury. I see a kid awkwardly learning how to move, and not to move, through the world. I see, of all things, me.

2 comments:

Frank Scalise said...

I share your reverence for LW. The first is a breed apart from the sequels. Yes, all of the things you point out about it that aren't great, aren't great. But it came out when I was the age of your older cousin who saw it, and so it had a similar impact on me as it did on you.

As a crime fiction author, I read/watch a lot of the genre (plus write in it). I think what sets LW apart, and what makes me still want to watch it once a decade, is that it was gritty, and it was unapologetic.

Great post, man.

Frank Zafiro
http://frankzafiro.com

Jake Hinkson said...

Thanks so much for the kind words, Frank. Always nice to meet another old school Lethal fan.