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I was just checking to see if I was standing on plastic.

Lethal Weapon 2

(SPOILERS) As an aficionado of ’80s-90s action cinema, I naturally loved all things Joel Silver (except Joel himself, natch… except in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, natch), yet I was never entirely persuaded by the Lethal Weapon series. The first is a more than decent movie, and the chemistry between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover is uproarious and infectious, such that the series is undoubtedly very difficult to dislike. But as action cinema, as boosted as it is by Michael Kamen’s robust scoring, the movies are never more than serviceable, competent, respectable. Richard Donner was no John McTiernan at his peak, and you can see that in the way he threads, or rather doesn’t, Lethal Weapon 2 together. It’s almost an archetype of “That’ll do” sequels, because it’s bigger, funnier and more ridiculous, while never attempting to be a consummate piece of cinema in its own right.

Captain Murphy: Don’t make jokes, Murtaugh. Make arrests.

Shane Black, then shit-hot screenwriter of the original, recognised this when discussing his (and Warren Murphy’s) rejected sequel screenplay, plot elements of which were reworked by Jeffrey Boam (Boam was himself on something of a roll at that point, credited with the same year’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade screenplay):

I mean, look at how many rules they broke in terms of writing and structure. There’s a scene in that movie where Joe Pesci says, “They fuck you at the drive-thru! They fuck you at the drive-thru, they left out my ketchup…” It has nothing to do with any part of the story. They could lift it and no one would ever know it. But they did it as an improv and that’s what they wanted to do. Just get them together and let the guys be guys and have fun, and I respect that because Donner did it very well, it was a very successful movie. It’s just not the kind of thing that I really do.

And it’s true, I was initially scratching my head – it’s a long time since I last saw the movie – trying to figure the connection between the (very funny) “I don’t think you really want to go to South Africa” scene and the actual plot. There is one, other than the merely thematic, but its sooooo tenuous (it’s a distraction so Riggs can enter the embassy). I don’t mind particularly, but you’re very conscious how baggy, sprawling and episodic the final screenplay is. There’s a sequence where henchman Vorstedt (Derrick O’Connor) is, absurdly, sent to bump off all officers assigned to the case – including, daftly and memorably Aliens’ Jenette Goldstein being blown up on her diving board – and if you’re able to figure out how going to such extremes makes any sense whatsoever, well you’re ahead of me (to apportion blame where it’s deserved, this assassination subplot comes from the Black draft, and a writer more than happy to distribute violent excesses without due caution).

There’s no original Play Dirty script in circulation, but some of its constituent parts are oft repeated, including Leo having a very minor role (the character changed completely when Pesci came aboard), much more ultraviolence (torturing Riggs – and Goldstein’s Shaprio to death), a set piece involving a plane full of cocaine, and most importantly Riggs dying at the end. Curiously, while the last was Warner’s immediate no-no sticking point, it appears Donner was nevertheless considering such a development right up until the editing stage; two endings were shot, one with Riggs expiring (the final long shot in the finished film is from that sequence). Also changed during filming was the fate of Patsy Kensit’s Rika, as a version was shot where she survives and is in the final scene.

Structurally, the movie isn’t shy about displaying its shortcomings either. It’s an amazing coincidence that Riggs and Murtaugh should be assigned to protect Leo, who is also intrinsically connected to the case they’ve just been involved in (we joined them in situ, chasing some suspects in a car full of krugerrands). Chekov makes his mark not once, but twice, since we encounter both his Dislocated Shoulder (Riggs’ actually) and Nail Gun (the movie’s most celebrated incidence of violence and referenced as one of the cuts to get the movie a 15 rather than 18 certificate in the UK). I can’t help thinking it was entirely unnecessary to retcon Vorstedt as responsible for Riggs’ wife’s death, smacking of the Sandman killing Peter’s Uncle Ben retcon in Spider-Man 3. I can see why it’s there – Riggs needs to be mad enough to recapture the first movie’s motivation and title – but he’s surely got reason enough motive force as it is, what with Rika meeting a watery tomb and his team assassinated. He doesn’t need Vorstedt obligingly rubbing his nose in how he “changed the course of your life”.

Riggs: Guttural, you know? A shitty accent.

Kim Newman called the movie “an absolute model of sequel-craft” in The Film Yearbook Volume 9, noting the upped ante (“out of their familiar mean streets and into a super-Bondian world of master villains, mass destruction and over-the-top stunts”) and the can’t-fail choice of bad guys: “blonde-rinsed neo-Nazis proving how convenient it is for Hollywood to have a racial group unable to complain when they are stereotyped as grotesque villains”. Indeed, Joss Ackland’s deplorable racist Rudd is one of the action genre’s most unreconstituted, loathsome bad guys; Ackland absolutely revels in the role. He isn’t fun the way Rickman’s Hans Gruber is in Die Hard, but he chews on that accent like it IS the character (in some ways, he’s correct). Plus, making the bad guys so unapologetic in their racism gives the movie a free pass in being absolutely and gleefully unapologetic in the retributions inflicted upon them.

Given such pronouncements, it was incumbent that Riggs relinquish killing the main bad guy to Murtaugh. One can’t watch Lethal Weapon 2 without thinking of the furore that later descended on Mel, though, owing to Riggs’ outright mockery of the “master race” and “Aryan” sentiments. It seems Lethal Weapon 4, when Boam was aboard, was also intended to have neo-Nazis as the villains; he didn’t know why that didn’t go forward, but it might well have been because someone pondered if perhaps they hadn’t already done that plot.

Murtaugh: Just me and my Saltwater Sportsman magazine.

Gibson and Glover are both on fine form, and it’s really their easy chemistry that keeps this going. As with Lethal Weapon, I appreciate Glover’s contribution more on revisiting the series. In no way could he be mistaken for an action guy (as Silver did when approving him for the lead in Predator 2), but on the humour front, he gets just as many laughs from Murtaugh’s world-weary resignation as Mel does from being antic.

Glover was 43 playing 52 here, while Gibson was 33 easily passing for a decade older (a mullet and a diet of five pints of beer for breakfast will do that to you). He gets to incorporate his love of The Three Stooges – how did he never work with Sam Raimi? – and overegg the on-the-edge bit, but that’s what everyone wants. Their stand out scene is probably the bomb in the loo – “Why didn’t they put the bomb in Trish’s stove?” – and it’s heartening to observe that the expelled toilet wasn’t pristine-clean inside.

Pesci was beginning such a winning streak here; it’s extraordinary, looking back. He’d be a key ingredient of box-office successes over the next five years, and even have his own hit headliner (My Cousin Vinny). The hitman set piece, leading to Riggs, Leo and assassin plunging from a hotel into its swimming pool, with Martin railing on Leo thinking he’s the bad guy, is another amusing scene (I can still recall all the bits that were singled out for trailers and clips in the run up to actually seeing the thing, which took a mere two months to reach the UK after its US release; quite speedy back then). The downside of all this was including Leo going forward. Entirely understandable, but further diluting the brand into a family-hijinks series, closer to Police Academy than Dirty Harry on the cop movie spectrum.

George: Mr Murtaugh has a gun.
Riggs: Yeah, but it’s an old gun, and he’s not a very good shot.

Kim Newman noted how Patsy Kensit “takes off her clothes and gets killed, without getting in the way of the boys too much”; I have to admit that, while I was appreciative of Patsy at that time, I always thought she was fairly awful here. Not helped any by lines like “I never know what I’ll be hungry for from one day to the next”. AKKKK! Besides Goldstein, fellow Aliens player Mark Rolston can be seen as one of the South Africans, and Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris is one of the cops. Murtaugh’s family are present and correct, hence his daughter Rianne (Traci Wolfe) getting an advertising gig and labourer Jack McGee presenting his verdict (“She made me want to go out and buy rubbers right now”).

Leo: You cops aren’t too bright, are you?

Interesting to hear Leo giving Riggs and Murtaugh a lecture in Money Laundering 101 (shouldn’t they know the basics, as cops?) There’s a generally unconvinced, relativistic attitude to capital here, which is probably healthy. No one on any side believes there’s any rectitude in the system. As Leo says, “Everybody cheats a little bit. Look at the Pentagon”. Murtaugh is frustrated at his fellow officers taking krugerrands from the crime scene (and using them to pay off Riggs’ wager). There’s a reference to the amount of cash on display: “Fucking Donald Trump lotto!” And when Murtaugh opines that just one bundle would get his daughter through college, Riggs is entirely unapologetic at the prospect of pursing that path: “So what? Do something good with it”. But then, he – or Mel – is cynical at the system generally, warning Rika how the good fruit can be found at the bottom of the pile.

Donner’s choices are sometimes distracting, such as the use of schlocky slow-mo when the car exits the shipping crate (and again, with the one landing on Vorstedt). I also wondered at the fish-eye lens used when Rika and Riggs are on the beach: designed to prove globe Earth is silly? The stilt-house scene took some swallowing too; if they’re that easy to collapse, there’s no way anyone should be living in one. 

Donner had a, some might say, eclectic directorial career. Best known for Superman and Satan, besides Riggs and Murtaugh, he also delivered the deeply dubious Spielberg kids production The Goonies (one-eyed Willy, indeed) and kicked of his big-screen career with NASA space propaganda (X-15), following it with self-confessed Satanist Sammy Davis Kr in Salt and Pepper. For his hattrick, he directed Charles Bronson in Lola, a profoundly unsavoury tale in which (per Wiki) “A 38-year-old writer of pornographic novels named Scott (Bronson) meets and falls in love with a sixteen-year-old school girl (Susan George) whilst living in London”. Next came The Omen.

I well recall the Clapton cover playing the movie out (selected when Riggs was going to die, hence switching to George Harrison and Cheer Down when he doesn’t). I don’t think I’d spotted the inclusion of Patsy’s I’m Not Scared before, though.

Riggs: Big Smile! Big Smile! BIG SMILE!

Lethal Weapon 2 was, of course, a huge hit. The third biggest movie of 1989 in the US, it more than doubled the original’s take. That would be the series’ peak performance at home, but Lethal Weapon 3 would see the franchise continuing to expand internationally. Black and Mel had planned a fifth outing, back before the latter’s reputation took a nosedive. Now it seems a fifth is back in development. It would be fitting, were Black to return to the series, but it seems journeyman hand Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) is attached. Still, Mel as director of a Lethal Weapon dangles the prospect of the best action spectacle the series has seen.

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