The 80s: When Mel Gibson’s characters were the ones who were crazy.

Directed by Richard Donner

Written by Shane Black

Starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey

Writing critically about Lethal Weapon would be a ridiculous, meaningless thing to do. Like umpiring a t-ball game or digging a hole in a swamp.

But re-watching this tried-and-true cable TV actioner a few weeks ago, I was struck what a slick, well-built piece of machinery it really is. Like many films that helped launch a wave, its formula has been replicated, repurposed, twisted, and inverted so many times that the original is termed guilty by mere association with something such as Collision Course (Jay Leno and Pat Morita!) or Turner and Hooch (Tom Hanks plus dog).

Lethal Weapon didn’t invent the dreaded “buddy-cop” genre, but you could argue it perfected it.  Wikipedia has an enjoyable entry tracing the evolution of the concept. It claims the first such film might have been In the Heat of the Night” but the modern father is 48 HRS, a movie I keenly remember seeing as teenage. I liked it so much I came back and watched it again (and which, sadly, featured another insane mofo. And Nick Nolte.)  You could even make an argument for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as the first “action-comedy.”

Movies and television were rife with these kinds of partnerships in the eighties. Roger Ebert labeled them “wunzas”—as in “One’s a cop on the edge. . . .”

(Sidenote: Who killed this genre? Jackie Chan? Owen Wilson? Josh Hartnett? And when is it coming back?)

Lethal Weapon triumphed in the way all Hollywood studios breathe new life into old ideas—by raising the stakes and pumping up the action. (These days, they seem to simply pump up the effects, similar, but not as rewarding. And there is evidence from the weak box office returns this summer that audiences are growing tired of it.)

Recent evidence of Mel Gibson’s bizarre behavior has dulled his star even further, but he convincingly played a troubled individual in the film. (As Sinatra sings, “How little we know….”)  The scene of his near-suicide in the first act is raw—even if a bit manipulative. Looking back, Danny Glover’s character seems to be inspired by the then-ubiquitous Cosby Show. But he’s the one who holds the film together and keeps it from collapsing into parody.

Still, it’s all ludicrous, of course, from the Christmas music over the opening credits, to the Eric Clapton/David Sanborn soundtrack, to the bizarre notion that cops will free a murder suspect just to be able to battle him man-to-man and then shoot him anyway, for good measure, a sequence I never completely understood. It wasn’t satisfying enough for Gibson to beat Gary Busey to a pulp? He had to be blasted away, too?

“Yeah,” Glover growls after they gun Busey down, in one of the gruffest overdubs ever.

It was a cartoon that winked at the audience, one that was laid-back enough to characterize itself as the “good guys” versus “bad guys.”  (Remember the note after Gibson’s truck crashes through the wall of Glover’s house??) Screenwriter Shane Black would take this knowingness to a new level in his underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a favorite of mine.

Lethal Weapon broke no new ground, but it was faster, louder, shinier, and more confident (like its close 1988 cousin, Die Hard) than others in its genre. I bought the movie and its three sequels for $9.99 at Target and am still not sure if I got ripped off. It’s like all-you-can-eat shrimp. Not necessarily a good thing.

Unfortunately for Gibson, he’s less likely than ever to be remember for his box office heyday.

POSTSCRIPT: I think these two guys beat Gibson and Glover to it.

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