Film Discussion

Throwback 20: Lethal Weapon 4

20 years ago, the Lethal Weapon franchise had effectively died. In recent years, a reboot of Lethal Weapon, in the form of a TV series, has proved to be entertaining for some, but troublesome for others. Lethal Weapon 4 marked the end of an 11-year film series starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as buddy cops, Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh, but where did it all go wrong?

Unfortunately, many action franchises turn to self-parody after a number of instalments – maybe one too many films, or the tone and subject matter has completely evaporated. It happens, and always with our favourites including the likes of Terminator, Die Hard, Death Wish and Lethal Weapon.

Released during the height of muscular action cinema back in 1987, Gibson and Glover – fresh from the Mad Max trilogy and The Color Purple respectively – were cast as mismatched cops in the first (and best) Lethal Weapon, written by Predator’s Shane Black. In the original, Riggs and Murtaugh’s oppositional stances were to the extent where the former was a suicidal, loose cannon cop, living with his dog in a trailer by the beach, whereas the latter was a police veteran, verging on a midlife crisis, and living with his family. Essentially, Riggs was batsh*t crazy, whilst Murtaugh possessed a more conservative conduct of his police work. With the common objective of taking out the bad guys, Riggs and Murtaugh – as one would expect – save the day and establish a new-found friendship. The comedic moments were subtle and not overdone or too frequent.

When Lethal Weapon 2 came around in 1989, Riggs and Murtaugh were more or less the same people, though their friendship was closer, but the sequel was more comedic, aided by the inclusion of federal witness, Leo Getz (Raging Bull’s Joe Pesci). In 1992, the biggest changes occurred: Shane Black was no longer the writer and the age rating of the latest sequel had been watered down from 18 to 15. In Lethal Weapon 3, Riggs is no longer batsh*t crazy, and Murtaugh is close to retiring. Leo Getz is out of place and annoyingly irrelevant (like in the next sequel), whilst Riggs finds a future wife in Sergeant Lorna Cole (Major League’s Rene Russo). The much lighter tone, inclusion of more characters and transition of the Riggs character established the Lethal Weapon franchise’s turn for the worse and dismissal of the original ethos.

Whilst only two and three years had separated the time between the first two sequels, it would be six years until the next and last Lethal Weapon sequel. In the meantime, the fortunes of the franchise’s two lead actors were polar opposites – Gibson won two Oscars for Braveheart, whilst Glover starred in Gone Fishin’ with Joe Pesci… Maintaining a 15 rating, Lethal Weapon 4 presented a story involving Chinese Triads and their criminal quest to free the Four Fathers, a group of high-ranking Triads. Conveniently produced around the time of the Britain-to-China Handover of Hong Kong, Lethal Weapon 4 – like Lethal Weapon 2 with South Africa and Apartheid – tied in with the goings-on in the real world. Sadly, the real world connection is the only worthwhile connection that Lethal Weapon 4 shares with Lethal Weapon 2, other than the retention of its two lead characters.

Lethal Weapon 4, like its predecessor, added to the cast supporting its lead characters – please welcome Saturday Night Live’s Chris Rock. In the role of Detective Butters, adding another comedic character alongside Pesci’s Leo Getz, Chris Rock was practically playing himself. With comedic lines often irrelevant to the progression of the story, many of Butters’ sequences came across as showcases of the actor’s comedic talents. Murtaugh, still on the police force, is – for the majority – unbeknownst that Butters has impregnated his eldest child, Rianne (Traci Wolfe). The only upgrade in Lethal Weapon 4 is the addition of a legit villain in the form of Jet Li (Once Upon a Time in China), in his first American film. Jet Li’s villainous Wah Sing-ku added the aspect missing from, realistically, the original Lethal Weapon – a fearful, skilled villain, who could match or better the skills of Riggs.

Riggs, however, is the biggest disappointment of Lethal Weapon 4. Now living in a nice beach house with the pregnant Lorna Cole, Riggs is no longer the same character from the previous three films – noticeably, Mel Gibson has short hair for the first time. In Lethal Weapon 4, an idea present is that age has finally caught up with Riggs and Murtaugh, though the latter has always been old to an extent. Because age has caught up with Riggs though, it concludes that he is no longer in possession of the Special Forces skill set frequently present in the earlier films. On one hand, it is somewhat beautiful that Riggs has managed to turn his life around over the last 10 years, but for film fans, the Riggs on show in Lethal Weapon 4 is just a generic action film Mel Gibson, and completely unrecognisable from the first two Lethal Weapon films.

Again, it is a nice character development over a franchise that Riggs and Murtaugh are now both stable family men, and no longer mismatched. But it is the mismatch that makes Lethal Weapon – the pairing of the loose cannon cop and the family man was the ethos of Lethal Weapon! The name itself is a reference to what Murtaugh refers to Riggs as in a parking lot, soon after they first meet in the original, because of the said Special Forces skill set.

If Riggs is no longer a lethal weapon, is Lethal Weapon 4 true to its name?

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