‘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.

When you watch a movie as a dumb kid — even if you watch that movie all of the time — you tend to miss certain things that suddenly seem obvious when you revisit it as an adult. With Lethal Weapon, I was kind of shocked by how not funny it is. In terms of how the franchise has been remembered, the relatively light-hearted Lethal Weapon 2 seems like the more influential film — that’s the one where a surf board goes through a guy’s head at the end of a car chase, and Riggs says, “Wipe out!” Lethal Weapon 2 is the Lethal Weapon movie that’s been copied over and over, most recently with Fox’s entertaining TV reboot.

Lethal Weapon 2 was written by Jeffrey Boam, a well-known screenwriter of ’80s and ‘9os action films who penned Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Boam’s version of Riggs resembles Indiana Jones — in Lethal Weapon 2 he hangs on car hoods during high-speed chases and fights Aryan-looking villains to the death. But the original Lethal Weapon isn’t like that. It’s much darker.

In the original Lethal Weapon, screenwriter Shane Black established a theme that would also inform his work in subsequent films such as The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Nice Guys — the striving toward goodness and heroism by flawed men that the world has discarded. While the quippy dialogue that made Black a Hollywood wunderkind is on display — “God hates me!” “Hate him back, it’s always worked for me!” — the first Lethal Weapon isn’t as jokey as subsequent entries. It’s closer to a hardboiled character study (I swear!) in the vein of Taxi Driver.

The first 45 minutes, in particular, are pretty incredible in terms of grimly laying out just how far gone Riggs is. A lonely man living alone in a camper by a beach — which seemed awesome when I was 12 and now seems incredibly depressing — Riggs is the kind of guy who wakes up with a cigarette in his mouth and goes to bed after downing a case of beer and sucking on the muzzle of his gun.

The desperation of the character becomes even clearer when you watch the director’s cut — there’s a Taxi Driver-like scene in which Riggs smashes his television in a depressed rage, and another darkly comic scene where Riggs hires a prostitute to hang out with him while he watches The Three Stooges. Then there’s a disturbing sequence in which Riggs puts himself in harm’s way while confronting a deranged sniper shooting at kids playing in a schoolyard. Even by the lax standards of the nihilistic ’80s action film, a school shooting apparently was a bridge too far in the original edit of Lethal Weapon.

The centerpiece scene of Lethal Weapon‘s first half finds Gibson sitting alone in his trailer with a photo of his dead wife on his lap. He’s drunk and crying his eyes out. A Bugs Bunny cartoon plays on TV in the background. He picks up his Beretta, stares down the barrel, and puts it to his forehead. Then, he puts the gun in his mouth. He comes extremely close to pulling the trigger, but something makes him stop. He tells his wife he’ll see her later. “Much later,” Riggs says, choking back a full-on weeping jag.

Gibson, frankly, is amazing in the scene — which is to say, he’s excruciatingly authentic as a man who is flailing, and wailing with real tears, at the end of his rope.

Once Riggs and Murtaugh are friendly enough to share beers on a boat in Murtaugh’s driveway, Lethal Weapon takes a less dark turn and starts becoming more, well, Lethal Weapon-like. But the bleakness of Black’s original version still doesn’t completely dissipate. Riggs starts the film by using extreme acts of violence as a way to destroy himself. But by the end of Lethal Weapon, violence has become a way for Riggs to express his love for Murtaugh and his family. In the film’s climax, Riggs survives torture and a couple of near-death experiences in order to “redeem” himself by saving Murtaugh’s daughter, much like Travis Bickle mowing down pimps and drug dealers at the end of Taxi Driver to rescue Jodie Foster. Except with Lethal Weapon, there’s no irony — when Riggs finally seems at peace at the end of the movie, we’re supposed to take it at face value that he’s no longer a mess. All that matters is that Riggs’ homicidal/suicidal nature has been harnessed for “good,” therefore purifying him.

(Curious footnote No. 1: Black was initially brought back to write Lethal Weapon 2, but soon left the project after clashing with producer Joel Silver about the ending — Black wanted to kill off Riggs, and Silver wanted Riggs to live so he could come back for a sequel. For Black, killing Riggs would’ve preserved the “hero” narrative of the first film. It also seems like a more Gibson-friendly ending — as an actor and director, he’s long been drawn to martyrs, starting with the ultimate martyr, Jesus Christ. If Black had gotten his way, I suspect the Lethal Weapon movies would be less popular but more respected as cult films.)

Let’s go back to The Mel Gibson Problem: Do I still appreciate Lethal Weapon in light of what we now know about Mel Gibson? Yes, but not “just” as a fun action movie, but rather as an unwitting portrait of Gibson himself. Riggs and Gibson seem to have a lot in common. They’re both guys who at times have applied a veneer of glib joviality to conceal an unfathomable inner rot. Judging by the films that Gibson has directed — most notably Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Hacksaw Ridge — they both seem to be regard extreme violence as a pathway to redemption. And, with all due respect to Gibson, he and Riggs have occasionally appeared to be seriously unhinged.

I’m not the first person to make this comparison. “Riggs was a guy that had very little respect for life, much less his own,” said Richard Donner, who directed all four Lethal Weapon movies, in an infamous 2011 exposé of Gibson by Peter Biskind in Vanity Fair. “Actually, he was suicidal. Mel just fit the mode perfectly. He knew the character, got the character.” Later, Gibson admitted that he contemplated suicide in real life not long after he finished the first Lethal Weapon.

Perhaps it would’ve been less shocking when the rage and self-hatred that Gibson had successfully concealed from the public exploded in disastrous fashion in 2006 and ’10 if people had remembered what Martin Riggs was like in the first Lethal Weapon. But given that the character (and Gibson’s image) were sanitized in the subsequent Lethal Weapon movies, it was all too easy to forget. For instance, in the first Lethal Weapon, it’s implied that Riggs is a bigot — he refers to an Asian-American henchman as “chink,” and expresses disgust when Murtaugh suggests that two female characters had a lesbian relationship. But in Lethal Weapon 2, Riggs is portrayed as an anti-racism crusader out to get some scummy South African diplomats. It’s a subtle but significant shift that makes Riggs a more likable but far less complicated character. Even Riggs’ iconic mullet — so unkempt and frizzy in the first film — is less wild in Lethal Weapon 2.

(Curious footnote no. 2: In that Vanity Fair story, there’s an anecdote about Gibson “wearing coffee filters as yarmulkes and bellowing stentorian renditions of ‘Edelweiss’ ” while on the set of Lethal Weapon 2. Is that “clowning around” — to use Vanity Fair‘s term — or anti-Semitism? I’ll let you decide.)

What’s fascinating now about Gibson’s old movies is how often his characters align with the real Gibson we’ve come to know. It’s kind of amazing to note that even when Gibson was among the most famous actors in the world, he frequently played angry, violent men who try cover up how broken they are with lots of jokes and put-upon happiness. Even now, with Gibson’s in the midst of an apparent comeback, you can sense that uncomfortable tension whenever he’s on camera.

In that way, Gibson can’t be compared with Bill Cosby, whose “America’s dad” persona is utterly at odds with the reality of his alleged crimes. Whether the public has chosen to notice it or not, Gibson has long front-loaded his demons into even his most commercial films. He was telling us who he was back when People declared him the Sexiest Man Alive. The only “problematic” celebrity I can compare Gibson to is R. Kelly, who made his own sexual perversity the primary topic of his art long before he was exposed as an actual pervert.

Getting back to the thornier part of The Mel Gibson Problem: Should you feel bad about liking Lethal Weapon? Maybe. But maybe that was the right way to appreciate it all along.