Ok, pop quiz. Name a 1980s action movie featuring a guncrazy white cop being aided by a more controlled black cop in dealing with a terrorist organization in the L.A. area. If you mentioned Die Hard, you wouldn’t be wrong. But I’m referring to the first Lethal Weapon that premiered in theaters almost a year and a half before Die Hard.
In the early to mid-1980s, Shane Black was a young wise-ass of a screenwriter who would add a little touch to his scripts to get people’s attention at one point describing a rich house in the Hollywood Hills as one he will buy when he sells a hot script. His friend and sometime collaborator Fred Dekker described the opening sequence of The Monter Squad as unfilmable to the budget they had as Black has written zeppelins attacking Dracula’s castle.
In many ways, Black was both parodying action movies while dialing it up to 11. Lethal Weapon would be the first script of his to be made and hit theaters in March of 1987 starring Mel Gibson as Sgt. Martin Riggs, a burnout narcotics cop who’s in mourning following the death of his wife that he spends his nights debating on whether to blow his brains out. When a drug sting goes bad (as they always do), Riggs dares the thug holding the gun to his head to blow his brains out.
On the flip side, Sgt. Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is the all-American dad with the house in suburbia with the three kids and the wife who makes him breakfast and coffee. Murtaugh seems to live a humdrum life that he’s lost touch with his war buddy, Michael Hunsaker (Tom Atkins), who’s been trying to get contact him. Michael’s daughter, Amanda (Jackie Swanson) has been making porno movies. When the movie opens, she drugged out of her mind and half naked and falls from a rise apartment to her death.
Murtaugh is put in charge of the investigation with Riggs, who has been transferred from narcotics to homicide, is working with them. (In real life, they would’ve given Riggs a desk job or leave of absence.) This is one thing the police pscyhologist Dr. Stephanie Woods cautions the department captain Ed Murphy (Steve Kahan) about the dangers of leaving Riggs in the field, but Kahan feels like others in the department that Riggs might be trying to get “psycho pay.”
But very soon, Murtaugh notices something is off about Riggs. In a deleted scene, Riggs shows up to assist at an active shooter scene but when seeing a wounded child, goes closer and shoots the sniper dead. This might be what Murtaugh means when he talks about “that stunt you pulled” to Riggs. But it’s just assumed it’s what he dd at the drug sting operation.
They go to a call where a man is out on a ledge of a building. But when Riggs goes to talk to him, he tricks the guy into getting closer so he can handcuff him. Then they jump off the building into the giant air cushion below, angrying Murtaugh. But later when they go check up on a lead as it’s been revealed Amanda’s drug were poisoned, they are shot at by her pimp. Riggs saves Murtaugh from being shot but the gunman dies when Riggs shoots him. Initially upset with Riggs, he later thanks him and apologizes for his actions.
They bond later that night as Riggs meets his wife, Trish (Darlene Love), and his children, the oldest, Rianne (Traci Wolfe), is smitten with Riggs. But over beers, Riggs hints that he doesn’t believe that Amanda’s pimp was all behind this and there’s a feeling neither does Murtaugh. The next day, they go to interview another prostitute who was found at the scene of Amanda’s death but her house explodes. It’s determined someone set a bomb, but Riggs notices the triggering device was similar to something used when he was in the Vietnam War. A child identifies the person he saw at the house had a similar tattoo that Riggs has, which was a special forces tattoo.
Questioning Michael again at Amanda’s funeral, it’s revealed that both Murtaugh and Michael served in the Army during the early days of Vietnam and fought in the Battle of la Drang where Michael suffered a bayonet stabbing to save Murtaugh’s life. Since then, Michael has become a successful banker in L.A. But after the war ended, many of the military stayed and became involved in a heroin-dealing business through Michael’s bank. This is led by Gen. Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) who runs businesses, such as a nightclub as fronts. One of his loyal lieutenants is Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey) who shows how loyal he is by allowing The General to burn his forearm with a cigarette lighter.
Michael is shot by Mr. Joshua who appears in a helicopter but Riggs is unsuccessful in returning fire. Michael was wanting to get out of the heroin-dealing but Amanda was poisoned to keep him in as they were planning a big deal to go down in a few days. Later that night, Mr. Joshua shoots Riggs but he’s wearing a bullet-proof vest. But they kidnap Rianne and kill her boyfriend believing they have some leverage on Murtaugh because the department is reporting that Riggs was killed. But Riggs and Murtaugh are now going to go all in to rescue Rianne and stop The General and his mercenaries.
It’s a wild crazy action movie further executed by being set at Christmas as there is a lot of holiday decorations around the sets. Black is a big fan of Christmas and has used the holiday in many of his movies he’s written. In Last Action Hero, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, there is at least a scene or two set at Christmas or the whole movie is set around Christmas. Even his entry in the Marvel Cinema Universe, Iron Man 3, was set around Christmas, because why not.
This movie is loaded with so many scenes related to Christmas. The bothched drug sting takes place at a Christmas tree lot. When Riggs contemplates suicide, he is watching a Looney Tunes Christmas show. There is a scene of LAPD officers practicing singing Christmas carols. The man on the ledge was at a Christmas party prior and there’s a street Santa watching among the onlookers in the crowd. During the big shoot-out on the streets at the end, there is Christmas decorations lined up and down the streets. And the ending takes place on Christmas Day with Riggs joining the Murtaughs for dinner. And there’s so much other stuff in between.
While Die Hard written by one of Black’s contemporaries, Steven de Souza, in the action genre, it seems Lethal Weapon usually takes a back seat to Die Hard. de Souza was one of the co-writers of 48 Hrs., which this sorta parodies. Lethal also hit a milestone this year with its 35th anniversary. And while public opinion on Gibson has changed with a lot of things he has said and done, it’s seems hard to believe in 1987 that he could play someone so unhinged. But now we see why he’s perfect for the role.
It also helps that a skilled director like Richard Donner could understand what Black was shooting for and was able to add his own touches to the movies. Donner, who passed away in 2021, seemed never to get the due respect he deserved, even though he set the template for all superhero movies with his 1978 Superman. Donner would go on to direct all three sequels but Black didn’t care for the more comical approach of the second movie and left the production. He gets only a story credit.
In many way, you can understand why Black left. At the end of this movie, it’s evident that Riggs has changed and even though he’s still going to grieve and mourn his late wife, he gives Murtaugh the “special bullet” he has been saving for shooting himself. None of that edge is there with the later movies. Riggs and Murtaugh almost become like a married couple, like I’ve said in previous posts.
Ironically, Black would find himself writing a parody of his own movies with Last Action Hero when he was brought on to beef up the script by first-time writers Adam Leff and Zak Penn. The latter has become, like Black, a writer of many action-oriented movies, such as X2: X-Men United, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Incredible Hulk and the first Avengers movie.
But sadly, it looks like Black’s most ambitious script will never be made. With Dekker, they wrote a script in their early days titled Shadow Company, which was scheduled to be directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell among others. It had a plot similar to Universal Soldier in which a bunch of Army soldiers who were in Special Forces rise from the dead on Christmas night (because it’s Shane Black) and start killing people. Apparently, the soldiers were subjected to experiments during the war.
Like most movies, problems arose during pre-production and this movie was never made. It has gained a cult following among fans of the works of Black, Dekker and Carpenter. Yet, seeing how so much time has passed since the end of the Vietnam War and now, it could be revised to focus on the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars. But I don’t think it would have the same feel as it would if he was released in the 1980s. It was a different time. Even though The Expendables movies have brought back the feeling, action directors are different now. And action movies are different now.
Some people might look at Riggs and Murtaugh as too dangerous. Everytime one of them shot someone, there would be an OIS (Officer-Involved-Shooting) investigation and they’d be on administrative leave or working a desk. That doesn’t make for much action as the trope of a cop being suspended has grown tiresome. Riggs and Murtaugh aren’t bad cops but a lot of their behaviors wouldn’t fly in present time.
Some movies are just a time capsule of the era they were released in. And as a movie that was released while the infamous Rampant and C.R.A.S.H. division actions of the LAPD were happening, you have to watch these movies with a grain of salt that we didn’t know what was happening. Still as a Christmas movie with a little bit of something different, it sure delivers.
What do you think? Please comment.