Skip to main content

Remarks like that will not get you invited to Christmas dinner.

Lethal Weapon
(1987)

(SPOILERS) The first of Shane Black’s Christmas-set screenplays – “It’s just a thing of beauty” he told Entertainment Weekly of the season to be jolly – isn’t perhaps his most essentially so. But then, the most essentially Shane Black Christmas-set movie is one where his sole contribution was furnishing the title (producer Joel Silver added a Christmas setting to Die Hard when he saw how it added a certain something to Lethal Weapon). Thematically, however, with forgiveness and family foregrounded, through the cathartic infliction of ultra-violence, nothing could be more festive.

On that level, the opening, as Jingle Bell Rock takes a woozy turn when Amanda Hunsaker (Jackie Swanson) dive offs a skyscraper, effectively informs us that it will remain a contrasting backdrop to grim proceedings. Indeed, the most Christmassy scene was one added by Jeffrey Boam (later writer of Lethal Weapons 2 and 3), in an attempt by director Richard Donner to water down the darkness of Black’s latest draft. The shootout at the Christmas tree lot replaced the sniper scene that can be seen on the “director’s cut” DVD. It’s an effective introduction to Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs, one you wouldn’t know wasn’t penned by Black if you hadn’t been told, with Riggs announcing his suicidal bent – “You think I’m crazy?” – along with Gibson’s Three Stooges obsession (as to where Riggs’ tendencies to homophobic and racist slurs comes from, well, I’ll leave that for you to decide). The subsequent jumper scene – “Do you really wanna jump? Do you wanna?” – merely serves to underline his disposition.

If I can present the case for the prosecution for a moment, much as I’ve enjoyed the Lethal Weapon series, I’ve never counted it as one of my favourites of the action genre. Even here, before the “darker” tenor of the lead character has been watered down through comedy sidekicks and romantic interests, the tendency to overplay tends to lessen the potential impact. Gibson is really up to bug-eyed eleven here, perhaps just that little bit too indulged by Donner. His interplay and chemistry with Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh, just turning fifty and saddled with a new partner as reckless as he is reserved, is never less than terrific, but the Nam vet glamour-PTSD and grieving widower side is too heightened to be truly affecting.

Gibson’s the main attraction, which is why I think I’d previously paid less attention to just how great his co-star is. He gets it exactly. Both are playing about a decade older than they were at the time, both entirely convincingly (Gibson’s mid-'80s period finds him gaining a good decade of hard living in about half that time). Glover’s hangdog weariness is as perfect here as it would be out of place in Predator 2 a few years later. While Murtaugh’s attempts to hold his new partner in check are commendably for nought, it’s in his domestic interactions that he really shines, be it fretting over the big Five-O or putting on a show when he invites Riggs round for dinner. And his family are perfect, and must have enjoyed the ensemble playing – or the cheques – as they would all return for the sequels: Darlene Love as Roger’s affectionately long-suffering wife, Traci Wolfe as his Riggs-smitten eldest daughter Rianne and Ebonie Smith and Damon Hines as the cheeky kids (dad’s attempts to rap and their response are hilarious for their naturalism).

If this side goes great guns, where the picture stumbles slightly is in its failure to make the villains worthy or interesting. Gary Busey successfully reinvents himself as a bad guy in the form of blonde merc Mr Joshua, showing his steel by failing to flinch when a lighter is scorching his flesh, but he and Mitchell Ryan’s McAllister lack the wit and flair of later Black bad guys. There’s potential early on, with the intrigue of Nam connections announced by a kid witnessing Busey’s special forces tattoo, along with the mentions of Air America (later a Gibbo movie, and then the basis for a Tom Cruise one) and CIA heroin smuggling, but once Rianne has been kidnapped, there isn’t much room left for detective work.

As for the action, Donner handles the task with a mixture of aplomb and '80s excess. The rain-drenched finale, a fight between Riggs and Mr Joshua, has always struck me as a bit of a fizzle, and those moments that go overboard – Riggs rolling and shooting during the lot scene – land just that wrong side of absurd. It has to be said that Michael Kamen doesn’t help matters, ladling on the sax at any given opportunity (his and Eric Clapton’s score is often great, though, and he’d become a fixture of Silver productions for good reason). The balance isn’t as effective here as in say Predator, where the entire movie was intentionally pitched on an absurd, homoerotic level, such that scenes like Riggs and Murtaugh showing off their heroic cred during sadistic/titillating torture tip into the laughable. The dialogue too tends to the overripe at times (“Are you really crazy, or are you as good as they say you are?”)

On the other hand, the preceding lakebed sequence, as Riggs hides out with a sniper’s rifle during the exchange of Murtaugh and his daughter, is a set piece highlight Donner can be justifiably proud of. And Riggs’ reintegration into society (he’s cured – at least until Patsy Kensit gets got) is a heart-warming end note, amid discussions of the quality of Murtaugh’s wife’s cooking.

And while Die Hard gets all the credit – rightly so for its own blend of festive thuggery and bloodletting in aid of restoring the nuclear family – Lethal Weapon is really the movie responsible for morphing the action movie from muscle-bound hulks to respectable actors (Willis, Gibson). You might argue that happened at the start of the decade with Indiana Jones, or even that Eddie Murphy found his way in there first, kind of, but the adult action flicks of Silver and Simpson/Bruckheimer were a thing apart, and it was principally Gibson (and Glover) who first offered them an air of respectability. Even if Mel’s mullet is obviously a no-no under any artistic criteria. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.