On the First Day of Die Hard, My True Love Gave To Me...
A Crazy Lunatic
As we've steadily tracked through the Five Days of Die Hard year after year, one trend has become readily apparent: plenty of movies act like a cross between the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon films. From the third film in the Die Hard series, Die Hard With a Vengeance, the movies have felt like their own riffs on the Lethal Weapon formula. Two mis-matched partners forced to work together to stop such-and-such terrorists.
If there's a key difference between the two film series its that one tried to stay fairly grounded (that would be the Lethal Weapon series) while the other became a parody of itself, recasting its leading man, more and more, as an improbable superhero despite his fairly grounded first story. Once the series became more like Lethal Weapon in its structure it also became unlike either series in scope or style. Maybe the series would have been better off just copying the Lethal Weapon formula to a tee, at least so it could keep its more grounded storylines.
Or maybe not. Going back and watching the first Lethal Weapon it's easy to see why it became such a hit when it was released back in 1987, pulling in $120 Mil worldwide off a budget of just $15 Mil. The film is full of snappy dialogue, lots of action, and a very 1980s style. It set the groundwork for a lot of cop movies to come, and its influence can still be felt even now. It defined the buddy-cop genre. That said, the first film really isn't all that great. It's a bit poky around the edges, has a really flabby last act, and essentially drops its central mystery altogether at the midpoint. It was revolutionary at the time but, frankly, it doesn't have the same edge anymore in large part due to everything that's come along since.
The film focuses on two cops, Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and Martin Riggs (piece of filth in human form, Mel Gibson). Roger is a down-to-Earth cop who's just reached his 50th birthday and is slowly starting to think about retirement (as per his catchphrase, "I'm getting too old for this shit"). Riggs, meanwhile, is the so called "Lethal Weapon", a military trained sniper with additional training in martial arts. He's also a bit of a loose-canon, suicidal after the death of his wife and just one bad day away from eating a bullet. After another one of his busts goes too far, with Riggs actively asking for a perp to shoot him, their Captain reassigns Riggs to work with Murtaugh, hoping that, somehow, the older cop will help temper the younger guy.
The two cops have to work together on a case that Murtaugh caught right before Riggs joined up: the death of Amanda Hunsaker, a seeming suicide (she jumped from the railing of a hotel penthouse) ruled homicide once the toxicology comes back showing the heroin she'd taken was laced with drain cleaner (she would have been dead in minutes either way). This sends them down a trail, following the drugs back to their source: General Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) and his assistance Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey). These two worked out a scam back in the war (Vietnam, as this was a movie from the 1980s) trafficking heroin into the U.S., and Amanda as just leverage over her father, a pilot with a legitimate front business, so they could keep him working for them. Amanda's suicide threw a wrench in their plans and brought the eye of the authorities. Now the bad guys are scrambling, trying to tie up loose ends before Riggs and Murtaugh figure everything out.
The flaws in the film come early, and the biggest one is certainly the casting of Mel Gibson. This isn't a screed about how terrible Mel Gibson is now (and quite possibly was then) as a person, to be clear. Much as I hate the dude, I went into this film to evaluate his performance in the film as given, no baggage attached and, frankly, he sucks at play Martin Riggs. Riggs is supposed to be crazy, on the edge, suicidal, but none of that darkness ever really touches Gibson. The best he can come up with is a parody of crazy, a Three Stooges-esque performance that seems more comedic than crazy. His performance is too broad to be true crazy. Meanwhile, he's awful at playing the military aspect role as Riggs. He's too stiff with a gun, as if he's never really held one before, and he always blinks every time he fires his weapon. He's just bad as Riggs, full stop.
Glover is much better as Murtaugh, although it's honestly the easier role to play. Glover has to put on the happy "family man" face, act put-upon from time to time, and otherwise be the straight man of the film. Glover does all this well but, truly, it doesn't stretch his acting ability at all. He's pretty good at playing he kindly father figure, and certainly he brings out warmth from Gibson's performance whenever the two are paired up in scenes. Generally speaking this is Murtaugh's movie despite Gibson's Riggs being the titular character.
The villains, by contrast, are much more one-note. The whole organization of goons come off as nondescript, Miami Vice-style terrorist trash, lead by a barely performing Mitchell Ryan. The best villain is certainly Gary Busey playing the absolutely crazy Mr. Joshua. If anyone in the film acts the part of a true "Lethal Weapon" it would be Busey, but then that man perfected playing insane long before he likely went insane in real life. It's type-casting, really, but it works so well here.
I think the greatest failing of the film, though, is that it doesn't really care much about its plot. Oh, sure, the first half of the film is a pretty decent mystery as the two cops try to piece together what happened to Amanda on her fateful night, and why. But then, about halfway in, the mystery gets dropped as the terrorists become very active, blowing up houses and gunning down witnesses left, right, and center. Any pretense of making the cops find the bad guys, of actually having them do the "detecting" part of their detective titles, is thrown out the window. The movie devolves into big action power-slop and, right then is when it goes from interesting to tiring.
The story losing its thrust is an issue, but the action that takes over frankly isn't much better. It's super choppy and stilted, filmed obvious to cover for the fact that neither Glover nor Gibson were true, trained action stars. The worst offender here is the ending fight between Mr. Joshua and Riggs, a sloppy and choppy fist fight where it's impossible to see what's going on. You can't get invested in it because there's no sense of scale, scope, or reality. This is supposed to be the climactic last showdown and it sucks. But then, all the action really works that way in the film, making a movie that is ostensibly supposed to be an action film vastly less interesting to watch for its actual action.
And, if we're going to nitpick, one scene really stuck out to me. After Murtaugh and Riggs escape the terrorist stronghold late in the film (which, it just so happens, is in the basement of a club in downtown L.A.), they both go on a chase for the perps. Murtaugh, covered in blood and carrying a gun, gets stopped by a uniformed officer and all he has to say is, "I'm a copy, I have a badge in my pocket," and the cop lets him go. Totally unrealistic considering what we've seen of cops over the last decade. Murtaugh is Black and there is no way his hand makes it to his badge before he gets shot. Meanwhile, pasty-white Riggs runs towards a bunch of cops, bare-chested and carrying an Uzi, and they have no problem with him at all. This I believed.
What does work is the banter, the relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh. That credit deserves to go to Glover, of course, but also the script by Shane Black. Although not everything about the story rings true, or works late in the film, the dialogue between the characters really sets the tone of the film and carries much of the movie. You want to follow these two cops around because its fun to hang out with them, to see them crack jokes with each other as they can into stupid scrapes time and again. This is what really works in the film and its easy to see why the later movies in the series focused more and more on the "buddy-cop comedy" aspects of the story. This dynamic works so much better than the actual action.
I get why the film was a success at the time but Lethal Weapon hasn't aged well in the years since. There are films that do the "cops up against powerful terrorists" shtick better, including three-years-out (at the time) Die Hard. As the years have worn on, Lethal Weapon simply seems less and less interesting or revolutionary.