‘Lethal Weapon’ At 30: A Buddy Cop Movie Now Haunted By The Mel Gibson Problem

Before we discuss Lethal Weapon — the classic 1987 action film directed by Richard Donner that turns 30 this week — we must address The Mel Gibson Problem.

The problem is two-pronged: First, can Lethal Weapon still be enjoyed in the wake of Gibson’s scandals in 2006 and 2010? (For background, I suggest Googling “Oksana Grigorieva” and “sugar tits.”) Second, should this movie be enjoyed, i.e. if you still like Lethal Weapon, are you supposed to feel guilty about it?

After revisiting Lethal Weapon for the first time in many years this week, I believe the answers to these questions are “Yes, but for different reasons in 2017 than in 1987” and “Let’s table this question until the end of this story.”

For the uninitiated: Lethal Weapon stars Gibson as Martin Riggs, a white 30something-year-old cop in L.A. who intentionally puts himself in dangerous situations because he’s suicidal after the death of his wife. The other cop is Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), a 50-year-old black guy who complains about his wife’s cooking and worries that his teenaged daughter is dressing too provocatively. That’s the dichotomy established in Lethal Weapon — white guy/black guy, insane guy/family guy, “I do all kinds of crazy shit!”/”I’m too old for this shit!”

You know what happens next: At first, Riggs and Murtaugh hate each other. But then, they don’t. It’s a formula, but in 1987, it seemed kind of new, because Lethal Weapon helped to establish the rules of the buddy cop subgenre. Together, Riggs and Murtaugh fight a heroin-smuggling operation known as The Shadow Company, which deploys a cadre of mercenaries (led by Gary Busey, of all people) who murder enemies by car, helicopter, and various other forms of transportation. If you haven’t seen Lethal Weapon, I won’t spoil how it ends. But if you’re hoping that Gibson and Busey engage in an unnecessary but awesome hand-to-hand combat scene, let’s just say that you won’t be disappointed.

If you have seen Lethal Weapon, you’ve probably seen Lethal Weapon at least 10 times. I know that’s true for me, anyway. I’m part of a generation of men — who are now in their late 30s and early to mid-40s — for whom Lethal Weapon was a boyhood touchstone. Between 1984 and 1990, there was a bumper crop of ultra-violent R-rated action flicks that were watched on VHS repeatedly by boys in grade school and junior high, years before it was appropriate to be exposed to the indiscriminate killing, copious F-words, and gratuitous nudity these films inevitably served up. Examples include: Die Hard, Robocop, Predator, Red Dawn, Commando, Rambo: First Blood Part II, The Terminator, Top Gun, Cobra, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, The Running Man, The Untouchables, Tango & Cash, Beverly Hills Cop I and II, and Total Recall.

(Perhaps your “Inappropriate Middle School ’80s Action” syllabus includes more Chuck Norris and less Kurt Russell, but you get the idea.)

Today, young boys and girls are exposed to absurdly graphic acts of violence in video games. But in the ’80s, the blood bath came courtesy of Schwarzenegger and Stallone and Lethal Weapon, which rivals Die Hard and Robocop as the best movie in this field. Pre-Columbine, you could see these movies in a theater, with a bunch of your knucklehead friends who definitely did not qualify as adult guardians, and never get questioned at the ticket counter. (Once school shootings became more common, and violent entertainment became a scapegoat, movie theaters seemed to clamp down.)

These movies taught me a lot of bad things. To pick just one bad thing: I remember knowing what a Beretta was in the sixth grade because that’s the model of gun that Riggs used in the Lethal Weapon movies. As a parent, I would be horrified if my son could identify different types of guns. I feel like people are generally more aware now of how toxic it is to expose children to that sort of information. But back in the Reagan era, there was a depraved naiveté about children’s culture that seems Lynchian in retrospect. Around the same time that I was renting Lethal Weapon and Die Hard over and over, I was also fake-smoking candy cigarettes and taking a Rambo lunch box to school. It wasn’t even like I watched R-rated movies to be rebellious, or because my mom told me not to. I watched Lethal Weapon with my mom in the room. (When you’re raised by a single parent, you tend to get more slack — my poor mother was just trying to get through the day without losing her mind.) It was just accepted that R-rated movies were part of growing up.