I’m not sure where the Buddy Cop sub-genre truly began. Obviously, Michael Mann made a big impact in 1984 with Miami Vice. Before that, Nick Nolte and Eddy Murphy managed to find a begrudging respect for each other in 1982’s 48hrs. Looking even further back to 1967, Sidney Poitier had to work with Rod Steiger’s racist police chief for In the Heat of the Night. Hell, while we’re at it, how about Holmes and Watson?
The point is Lethal Weapon wasn’t the first Buddy Cop film. But it’s often credited as “the one that started it all”... and it’s not hard to see why. Richard Donner’s original series opener is filled with all the required elements to get a modern action film labelled as cliché ridden. It’s Christmas, you’ve got two mismatched cops: one recently bereaved, the other not too far off retiring, they’ve got a small army of drug dealers with bad hair to take down, and there’ll be at least one kidnapped daughter to rescue. Nothing special at all. Yet, a whole twenty five years (okay, okay, and a couple of weeks) later, it still stands tall as a classic entry in the annals of action cinema.
The main reason for this? Just about everything, I’d say. It all starts in the brain box of a certain Mr. Shane Black. I don’t know what inspires a twenty-three-year-old to pen a film like Lethal Weapon, but I bet it’s something pretty special. This was a screenplay where Everything. Just. Flowed. Using his signature informal style, along with the most basic of descriptions, Black was able to provide crystal clear imagery, highly sympathetic characters, snappy dialogue, varied Los Angeles settings, well judged action sequences; and he delivered it all in a purely cohesive manner. Best of all, the script still works as an excellent companion piece to the film. If you can find it online, then do give it a read.
With Martin Riggs, Black created one of the very first “human” action heroes. Beforehand, they’d all followed the same emotionally blunt, archetypal tough guy persona popularised by Harry Callahan. But Riggs cried. Let alone putting a gun to his head, tears were a big deal in 80s cinema. Here’s a guy who, to put it simply, is emotionally broken. Constantly flitting from charming to furious, much of Lethal Weapon is spent toying with the prospect of Riggs finally snapping and doing god-knows what. And that’s why Roger Murtaugh is so important. Much calmer and far more reserved, he’s the vital counterbalance: there to act as a (understandably grumpy) surrogate father figure to Riggs; someone who can rein him in and prove that life is still worth living for. But only the perfect human element could bring them to life. So it’s by some miracle (namely casting director Marion Dougherty) that Mel Gibson and Danny Glover ended up in their respective roles.
Something clicked. This is chemistry like you rarely get the chance to see. Much like their characters, Gibson and Glover seemed made for each other. You don’t see two actors doing a good job, you see two friends having a great time; and this obvious bond would only strengthen across three sequels. It’s arguable, but Riggs may be Gibson’s career-best performance (it even helped land him the role of Hamlet). He effortlessly combines wide-eyed craziness with the required amount of evident inner torment – presenting a genuine human time bomb. Glover was a natural choice for someone getting too old for this stuff, bringing across the cranky veteran, the loving family man and the suffering friend all at once. Put together, they’re a wonderful combination. Many Buddy Cop movies live or die based on the strength of their bromance, and thankfully these two delivered the man-love in spades (no one ever gives me a bullet for Christmas).
In the shadowy pair of General McAllister (Mitch Ryan) and Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), Riggs and Murtaugh faced two very dangerous adversaries. As acting uber-villain, Ryan gives McAllister a natural air of commanding menace, rocks a prominent turtleneck sweater, and makes the most of his limited screen time. Think what you may of Busey, but once he was one of Hollywood’s go-to guys for action heavies (a la Richard Lynch and Henry Silva). Although a physically imposing hulk of nastiness, it’s surprising how Mr Joshua is probably one of Busey’s most low-key roles – a far cry from his snarling turns in Predator 2 and Under Siege, no matter how many lit Zippo lighters you hold under his arm. The Buse isn’t truly set loose until the climax, when he gets to rampage across L.A. with an assault rifle, dodging Mel’s attacks while heartily expressing his distaste for the holiday season. Amazing.
The bickering duo’s road to their nemeses is littered with memorable set-pieces. Mention Lethal Weapon to someone and there’s a solid chance they’ll immediately remember Riggs’ encounter with that suicide jumper, Murtaugh’s tense desert standoff, the chase down Hollywood Boulevard, or the final, rain-soaked confrontation with Joshua. All great, tightly constructed segments. But the real driving force behind Lethal Weapon isn’t its action scenes. It’s the human element where this film’s true magic shines through. This is a character piece, first and foremost, and whether it’s Riggs’ emotionally draining suicide attempt, Murtaugh’s constant jovial wrestling with his family, or the first time they share dinner together, there’s plenty to remind us of how Lethal Weapon goes the extra mile in setting itself apart from other action films.
Many 80s movies in particular are remembered for their music, including such synth-heavy works as Beverly Hills Cop, Manhunter and Fright Night to name but a few. Lethal Weapon’s soundtrack is special, however, as it combined the talents of three big name musicians. Powering the film’s emotional scenes was Eric Clapton’s guitar – getting right to the heart of Riggs’ emotional woes. David Sanborn’s saxophone provided a bluesy quality to Murtaugh’s many world weary moments. Last, but by no means least of all, Michael Kamen’s rousing orchestral talents bolstered the many action sequences, and portions of his score were more or less reworked for Die Hard the following year. With all three working together in harmonious unison (across the whole series, no less), the music of Lethal Weapon is quite a unique beast. Though, to be honest, you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who can listen to that ending credits song with a straight face.
It may be a little fanboyish of me to call Lethal Weapon perfect... so I won’t. But I can only nitpick. At times, it does feel as though the actual plot takes a distant backseat to the leads’ developing relationship, which in turn results in most supporting characters being swept under the rug (cough-TOM ATKINS-cough). Also, for a Big Bad, I do think McAllister may have benefited from a slightly meatier role. And has it really aged all that gracefully? Apart from the aforementioned song and turtleneck sweaters, there aren’t too many frightening holdovers from the neon decade. Well, except for that glorious mop hanging off Gibson’s scalp. Seriously, he’s like 80% mullet in this one.
It’s worth remembering just how dark this opening Lethal was compared to the sequels. Yes, they all had their dark moments (the whole last act of 2, Murtaugh’s downward spiral in 3 and just about anything involving Jet Li in 4), but with an increasing emphasis placed on expanding the action and comedy, none of them matched the original’s thematically gloomy nature. There was comic relief scattered throughout, but it was used as a tool to briefly take us away from all the harsh violence and real human drama that occupied a large majority of the film. In fact, despite being “the one that started it all”, it often feels like a disservice calling Lethal Weapon a standard Buddy Cop flick.
What it is, is a thriller that isn’t afraid to put characterisation and plot development in front of overdone action and violence – a trait that sadly continues to become less and less frequent in similar genre pieces today (though films like Drive show it’s yet to be forgotten). It’s also a case where all the right elements just so happened to merge. The writing was excellent, the performances were pitch-perfect, the action always excited, the sound design was masterful, it had a strong emotional core, and it was all held together under Richard Donner’s assured directorial banner.
Lightening in a bottle? That’s one way to put it.