Lethal Weapon may not be the source of cop-themed movie tropes, but it certainly elevated a bunch of them into cinematic institutions: Partners on opposite ends of the spectrum, with one guy an amiable family man, the other a slobbering maniac. A police chief who’s always fed up with their shenanigans. A stone cold villain who’ll find a way to make it personal. And, oh yeah, the family man is working his way to early retirement. He’s gettin’ too old for this shit! Toss in a few tasty saxophone licks on the soundtrack, and you’ve got an iconic cop movie that does everything you’ve seen before, only better.
We open on a L.A. high rise, just before Christmas. A young, topless woman (Jackie Swanson) does a few lines of Columbian nose powder before leaping from the balcony. Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is the detective assigned to the case. Murtaugh is mortified to learn the victim is the daughter of one of his old army buddies. Even worse, her coke was laced with poison–she would’ve died even if she hadn’t jumped.
This lousy day gets further complicated when the L.A.P.D. assigns him a new partner. Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is straight out of Murtaugh’s worst nightmares: His wild eyes match the wild hair that flows to his shoulders. He looks like he’s been wearing the same clothes for days. When we first meet Riggs, he’s holed up in a shambling trailer by the beach, living on a steady diet of cheap lager and Looney Tunes. His beloved wife was killed not long ago, and her loss has driven him to thoughts of suicide. The department shrink (Mary Ellen Trainor) says Riggs is unfit for duty, and she makes a strong argument.
On the flip side, being a damn good cop is about the only thing Riggs has left. They might bicker like Ralph and Alice Kramden, but the tension between Riggs and Murtaugh turns them into besties for the restie. Think Lennon and McCartney. Or, at least Lenny and Squiggy. This instant connection helps make inroads in a case that neither seems eager to solve.
Turns out, the girl’s death was part of a large, ugly conspiracy. We learn that her dad (Tom Atkins) was mixed up in a drug-running operation. Soon, Riggs and Murtaugh get in over their heads with the worst kind of 80s villains: Greedy, soulless psychopaths who dared to say “yes” to drugs. This band of monsters includes Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), a blonde killing machine who develops a particular hatred for our hero cops.
Unlike most other cop movies, Lethal Weapon finds a perfect balance between drama and comedy. It’s somehow deadly serious, and yet never takes itself too seriously. Gibson and Glover have strong comedy skills, and much of the movie’s success derives from this. At home, Murtaugh is the typical sitcom dad, tinkering with his fishing boat and getting mocked by his teenage kids. Meanwhile, Riggs has an unhinged sense of humor, whether he’s imitating Curly Howard or dropping puns during a big action scene. We laugh with them; they laugh at each other. It’s not hard to see why this film spawned a lucrative franchise.
It also makes sense that so many clichés became clichés because of this movie. Murtaugh can’t just be a family man, he has to be the archetype: He spends most of his free time bitching about his daughter’s boyfriends and his wife’s cooking. Riggs isn’t just a loose cannon; he’s the twitchiest of them all. Take the scene where Riggs, of all people, is dispatched to calm a suicidal jumper. What does he do? Why, offer a diplomatic cigarette, cuff himself to the guy’s arm, and leap off the building with him, of course!
And there are so many more tropes. I love Steve Kahan as the grouchy police captain who spends all these movies somewhere between killing, firing, or promoting Riggs and Murtaugh. (Seriously, is there a movie where the police chief loves his roguish detectives?) That goes ditto for the casting of Gary Busey as the psycho merc. Again, the filmmakers go the extra mile to sell you that Joshua is off his rocker, as if casting Busey wasn’t enough. No, they have the guy burn his arm with a cigarette lighter as a test of loyalty.
Honestly, Lethal Weapon goes the extra mile in every department. Director Richard Donner (Superman) and screenwriter Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) make sure the movie never quits. This is supercharged spectacle–a popcorn flick at its butteriest. Yes, it may be goofy in some spots and cornball in others, but make no mistake: This is an 80s action masterpiece.
112 min. R. HBOMax.