Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci
Written by: Shane Black (story, characters), Warren Murphy (story), Jeffrey Boam (screenplay)
Directed by: Richard Donner

Two things come to mind when people think of the Summer of '89: sequels and the uber-blockbuster media event known as Batman. And that summer was a bitter pill to swallow, as most of the sequels released were disappointments (to say the least). Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was one of two contenders left standing after the dust settled. The other was Lethal Weapon 2.

Returning to the big screen is the Odd Couple of buddy movies: Roger Murtaugh and Martin Riggs. This time around they're going head to head with a group of South African drug smugglers, led by Arjen Rudd, the minister of affairs for the South African Consulate. The only snag is that Rudd's group is protected under diplomatic immunity; the police can't touch him. Riggs and Murtaugh are reassigned to the protection of Leo Getz (Pesci), a federal witness who laundered half a billion dollars for Rudd's outfit. Riggs and Murtaugh take the fight to Rudd's doorstep - picketing outside the consulate ("END APARTHEID NOW!") and harassing Rudd in his office. When the drug smugglers wage war on the police, Riggs and Murtaugh take the law into their own hands.

There's a distinct tonal shift toward comedy in the Lethal Weapon series starting with Lethal Weapon 2. The score heard over the opening title screen is a Looney Tunes-esque theme, setting the tone for a more comical entry in the series. What follows is a five minute car chase that emphasizes explosions, frenetic pacing, and lighthearted bickering between the two leads.

For most of the movie's running time (up until the third act), Riggs is still crazy - but this time it stems less from psychosis, and more from a comic sense of mischief. He's a lot more well-adjusted in this film. He spends a lot of time at the Murtaugh residence (Mrs. Murtaugh often does his laundry), and lives for getting into trouble ... usually at the expense of Murtaugh's nerves.

Adding to the film's comic tone is the introduction of Getz. He's a blabbermouth, slimy and eager to please. He's the star witness to the state, but ends up being pushed around by two cops that want nothing to do with him. He's a great foil for Riggs and Murtaugh - instead of focusing on the infighting between the pair, the movie has fun with Getz's mistreatment by the two detectives. His drive-thru rant is one of the movie's more memorable moments (unfortunately to be rehashed in Lethal Weapon 4).

It's when we reach the third act that we're reminded of the ever-present darkness that lurked in the first film; that Lethal Weapon brand of violence. There's a sadism that effects most of the characters involved - it's almost a footnote to remind us this isn't solely a comedy.

But the movie stands as a rare example of a sequel that doesn't glide on repeating the magic of the first film. There's a progression in the relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh; these guys are growing closer together with each step. It's no longer an issue of just working together - there's a great deal of trust involved. And that's the key to this movie's success: once the credits start rolling, we miss these characters already.


Author's note:

This movie would've been an 8/10 for me, except for one irritating story point: Vorstedt's admission to killing Riggs' wife.

It is astonishingly lazy screenwriting to retcon Vorstedt as Victoria's killer. I understand why the writers did this - they needed a reason to get the bloodlust back into Riggs' eyes; get him pissed off again. But it comes off as amazingly transparent, when it's obvious that Vorstedt wasn't even a glimmer in a writer's eye back in '86 when Lethal Weapon was written. Here's an idea ... if you allow Riggs to move on with his life and fall in love with Rika (as he did) then kill off Rika! That should be enough to get Riggs thirsty for vengeance. Reawaken the psychopath, so to speak. Instead, Riggs goes ballistic after hearing the news, gets tossed into the water, and then finds Rika's body at the bottom of the ocean.

It's lazy writing like this that blows a pretty big hole in the story. And to be honest, it was irritating enough when I watched the movie that I considered a 6/10 because of it. But at some point, it becomes an inability to see the forest for the trees. There's rating, and then there's being overly picky.

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