The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Lethal Weapon

When thinking of celebrities who have fallen from grace, a good place to start is with Mel Gibson.  It's hard to think of another celebrity who was as universally popular as Gibson was only to fall hard and fast under a long list of embarrassing public incidents. The criticism started with his Passion of the Christ as questions arose about his message in the movie, and it went downhill from there.  The anti-Semitic issue came full front in some of Gibson's drunken rages in the years since, and for the most part he's disappeared from the limelight.

It's just hard to believe that someone as popular as Gibson could do something so stupid.  It goes to show you that as moviegoers and fans of celebrities, we can pretend all we want that we "know" these people, but if anything we know their on-screen personality and most often, not their real personality.  With Gibson, it is easier to think of Mad Max, William Wallace, and overall one of the biggest and most bankable stars of the 1980s and 1990s.  Of all his roles though, one recurring character stands out from the rest, his crazy cop Martin Riggs in the four Lethal Weapon movies, starting first with 1987's Lethal Weapon.

Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is a veteran cop in Los Angeles with a wife and four kids waiting for him at home.  Just having turned 50, Murtaugh is a good cop if a cautious one.  Sergeant Martin Riggs (Gibson) is a younger narcotics officer on the force struggling to cope with the recent death of his wife. Rumors throughout the LAPD linger that Riggs is suicidal so no one wants to work with him.  Unfortunately for Murtaugh, that's just what he gets as the two cops with very different styles are partnered together on a prostitute's murder.  Murtaugh and Riggs feel each other out, figuring out how the other one operates, all the while the evidence building up and the clues pointing to an immense drug and prostitution ring that dates back to some shady dealings during the Vietnam War. Can Murtaugh and Riggs work together to take the ring down?

If you have never heard of a buddy cop movie, this is the movie to start with.  And two, if you haven't heard of a buddy cop movie, what's wrong with you? Where have you been?  The formula is simple and was used before Lethal Weapon and has been used since LW, but it's rarely been handled as perfectly as it was in this 1987 action classic.  Pair two opposites together in some dangerous situation, let them fight things out as they discover all their differences, work together to solve a crime or case, let them bond through said differences, and let the entertainment values shoot up.  When handled correctly, the buddy cop movie is that perfect mix of action, drama and humor.  The 1980s were rampant with movies like this, but few are as good as the original Lethal Weapon.

For starters, instead of focusing on an overload of pointless shootouts, director Richard Donner focuses a majority of the movie on his two main characters. Without the development that comes out in these characters over the course of the movie, we're left with two cardboard cutouts of police officers.  One, the family man cop, and two, the livewire cop with a death wish.  Instead, Donner fleshes Murtaugh and Riggs out.  Yes, Murtaugh is a family man concerned about who his daughter's dating, the boat sitting in his driveway, and he complains about his wife's cooking.  Yes, Riggs is suicidal after his wife's death in a car accident.  But there's more than just that for both men.  By the end of the movie -- and into the three sequels -- we actually get a feel for who these two police officers are.

That's what separates Lethal Weapon from just about any other buddy cop movie you're going to see.  Amidst the humor and action, it's just a good, solid, well-written and well-made movie.  Gibson -- awesome 80s mullet and all -- was rarely better than he was here.  He's crazy, but he's a damn good cop too.  Glover isn't quite the straight man because he gets his fair share of laughs (his 'I'm getting too old for this shit' line is priceless) playing off of Gibson.  As separates, they're both great characters, but working together it takes the movie to another level.  For every scene where they bitch back and forth at each other, there's another endearing scene where they talk things out, realize they're after the same thing, and end up becoming not just partners, but friends.  It's not as sappy as I've made it out to be, but you get the idea.  Gibson and Glover carry the movie.

All the touches of a buddy cop movie are there though, not just the two leads.  You obviously need some particularly nasty villains, and Mitchell Ryan and Gary Busey certainly fill those shoes nicely as a former Special Forces general turned drug dealer and his head man, now working as a mercenary. The action is top-notch throughout, especially a Mexican standoff in the desert with Riggs and Murtaugh going toe to toe with Ryan's crew.  The finale between Gibson and Busey is epic, one expert fighter against another expert fighter in hand-to-hand combat.  I loved it all, the very 80s soundtrack, the action, the characters.  It's that perfect dose of action, drama and humor, and I look forward to seeing the sequels.

Lethal Weapon <---trailer (1987): ****/****

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