Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lethal Weapon (1987)

"Have you ever met anybody you didn't kill?"

"Well, I haven't killed you yet."

Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey
Written by: Shane Black
Directed by: Richard Donner

If there's one good movie to emerge from the 80s buddy film genre, it's Lethal Weapon - a movie chock full of action, suspense and most importantly, chemistry between the two leads.

In the days leading up to his retirement from the force, LAPD sergeant Roger Murtaugh has been assigned the case of Amanda Hunsacker, a young woman found dead after taking a nosedive from her high-rise apartment. Things get personal for Murtaugh after he discovers Amanda was the daughter of Michael Hunsacker, an old friend from his days in the army. Further complicating matters is Murtaugh's new partner, sergeant Martin Riggs, a burnt-0ut cop who's registered as a Lethal Weapon from his combat experience in Vietnam. Riggs has been on the edge since his wife's death three years prior. The two reluctant partners are forced to work together to solve Amanda's murder, which leads to the discovery of Shadow Company, a drug-smuggling cartel importing heroin into Los Angeles. Murtaugh vows to bring down the drug cartel, if only he can survive his partner.

There's no shortage of gunplay, fistfights, explosions and high-speed chases in this gripping action movie from the mid-80s, and Donner clearly wasn't shy about the violence; much of it is the in-your-face variety. But it's the relationship and the interplay between the two leads that elevates this film over other genre fare, and adds loads of character to the story. Riggs and Murtaugh couldn't be a more disparate duo. One enjoys his time on the job neat and by the book - the other lives on the edge, an adrenaline addict and nearly too dangerous for his own good. Their settings are at odds with one another.

We first see Murtaugh on the morning of his 50th birthday. He's surrounded by a loving family, lives in the big house with a boat in the driveway, and enjoys the life of the domesticated family man in his autumn years. As we're introduced to Murtaugh, all he has to worry about is the gray hair, the pains of raising a teenage daughter with her budding sexuality, and finishing out the last few days of his fairly tame routine on the job. Riggs on the other hand, lives by himself in a trailer on the beach; no one around but a dog to keep him company. He lives the life of a lonely man, his surroundings are in disarray, and there's no solace in his existence. He wakes up every day, going through the motions. We soon find out that it's the job that keeps him going. Not only is Riggs at odds with Murtaugh, he's at odds with himself. He very nearly actually kills himself with his pistol, but can't do it with his wife's wedding picture staring him in the face. He desperately wants to end it, but it's her that's keeping him alive, plugging along, day after day.

There's a definite edge to this movie, most of which stems from Riggs, himself. His wife's death has reduced him to little more than a badge-wearing killing machine. His aim is lethal, and his hands quick to snap one's neck. He's a loner, as no one in the department wants anything to do with him. More often than not, he's got the look of a manic wild man, thanks to Gibson's crazy eyes and long hair (somewhat reminiscent of the vagrant appearance of John Rambo in First Blood).

Much of the movie's humor is derived from the bickering between Murtaugh and Riggs. When Riggs isn't making fun of Mrs. Murtaugh's cooking, he's poking fun at Murtaugh's overly professional approach to the job. Riggs derives pleasure from the chase, Murtaugh's happy with staying alive. It's almost like a sadistic action movie version of Bert and Ernie. And the movie could easily veer off into a married couple on the job (as the sequels will, in time), but the duo's infighting is offset by the violence and the very dangerous nature of the film's bad guys. In the end, these two detectives are only trying to survive to see tomorrow.


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