A Franchise for the Time Capsule: The Magic of the LETHAL WEAPON COLLECTION

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For better and worse, the Lethal Weapon series redefined the contemporary “buddy cop” thriller.  By 1987, the genre was a well-established Hollywood staple; the year prior, audiences flocked to Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal in Running Scared, which succeeded – primarily – by riding on the long coattails of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in the 1982 action landmark 48 Hours.  Hell, one could argue that the first “buddy cop” film was Norman Jewison’s Civil Rights-era classic In the Heat of the Night, which meant that any new entry didn’t just have to distinguish itself with action and comedy – it needed to clear the bar that Jewison’s Academy Award-winning thriller set back in 1967.

Enter Joel Silver.  The aggressive, fast-talking producer behind the aforementioned 48 Hours and the action hits The Warriors, Commando, and Predator, Silver had already made his mark as a “bigger equals better” action impresario, and he helped style Lethal Weapon as his magnum opus.  Silver’s masterstroke was to blend a cop movie with a James Bond picture: think ordinary guys capable of extraordinary physical feats, and you’re on the right track.

His Lethal Weapon heroes weren’t just hunting drug dealers in Los Angeles but rather globally syndicated drug dealers with connections stemming from the Vietnam War.  Shootouts wouldn’t confine themselves to warehouses and abandoned shipping yards; Lethal Weapon‘s climax finds Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs escaping a warehouse shootout and pursuing Gary Busey’s psycho enforcer through the city’s very busy freeways.  Even the traditional hostage situation got turned up to eleven – when the villains kidnap the daughter of harried family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), Murtaugh and Riggs cause a desert massacre overstuffed with sniper fire, automatic weapons, a runaway car, and even a hitman in a helicopter.  In Lethal Weapon, Silver helped usher the popcorn “buddy cop” drama – and, I’d argue, the modern action blockbuster – into a realm of comic-book extravagance it has yet to abandon (a trick he’d pull off to even greater acclaim with 1988’s Die Hard and 1999’s The Matrix).

Ultimately, though, the film’s secret weapon was writer Shane Black.  This was Black’s first produced Hollywood screenplay (he’d go on to pen The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the highly underrated Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), though you wouldn’t think it from the confidence he shows on the page.  Black’s three-act story structure is a marvel, and he’s a big believer in “show” vs. “tell”; franchise director Richard Donner may stage Riggs’ big almost-suicide moment a little melodramatically, but this one two-minute-scene says more about Riggs than a lot of expositional blather ever could.

Where Black excels, however, is in his character work; Riggs and Murtaugh are fully rounded in ways you don’t expect from a studio blockbuster.  Riggs is charming and dangerous and deeply wounded and unpredictable (sometimes all at once!), while Murtaugh is cautious and generous and slightly contemptuous and fearless (sometimes all at once!), and they never feel like Mad Libs: these are nuanced humans responding to the most precarious of troubles.  Gibson and Glover make a meal of their parts, and in this regard, I think Lethal Weapon betters its contemporaries – even In the Heat of the Night.  It satisfies on all fronts.

The sequels, as sequels are wont to do, suffer from the law of diminishing results – Donner and Silver crank up the action and comedy in each successive picture without refining the first one’s eye for character.  That said, all three follow-ups are worthwhile in their own ways.  The second is the best, with the addition of Joe Pesci’s motormouth Leo Getz galvanizing the more relaxed repartee between Riggs and Murtaugh, and Donner’s widescreen frame serving up even more ferocious action beats, like Riggs’ one-man assault on a stilt-home or his brutal showdown against Derrick O’Connor’s South African baddie.  Lethal Weapon 3 suffers from a preachy anti-guns message and Stuart Wilson’s bland bad guy, but it also introduces Rene Russo’s wonderful IA agent Lorna Cole, whose romance with Riggs is a series highlight.  Lethal Weapon 4 has the most problems – a slapdash script, too many cutesy one-liners, and Chris Rock and Joe Pesci competing with one another for “Most Obnoxious Comic Relief” – though it gets a lot of mileage from Jet Li’s terrifying Big Bad and the genuine affection the cast has for one another.  It’s not often that one could classify a hard R-rated action movie as “feel good,” but that’s the magic of the Lethal Weapons.  Despite the violence and death, these movies center on people who like one another, and it makes all the difference.

I’d rank the respective quality of Warner’s HD transfers in reverse order; 1997’s Lethal Weapon 4 has the sharpest, most defect-free image, while 1987’s Lethal Weapon offers the grittiest, grainiest visual experience.  Happily, this is not an insult; each feature looks as good as it possibly can, given the original source material, and Lethal Weapon was always the least expensive, most visually unspectacular film of the series.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are far more consistent, providing clear, aggressive soundscapes for the four movies.

Each film gets its own Blu-ray, and parts 1 – 3 have the same supplementary template: an audio commentary with Richard Donner, the deleted scenes that Donner reedited back into the Lethal Weapon director’s cuts from a few years ago, music videos (Honeymoon Suite’s “Lethal Weapon” for the first movie and for the third; part two doesn’t have one), and assorted theatrical trailers.  In addition, Lethal Weapon 2 gets the vintage “Stunts & Action” featurette.  This sounds like a lot, but look closer – the featurette is only four minutes long; the most substantive deleted scenes are on the Lethal Weapon 1 disc (fourteen extra bits as opposed to the sequels’ three apiece); and the Donner commentaries are slowly paced and filled with dead air.

Things pick up – in a big way – on disc four for Lethal Weapon 4, which has a great half-hour featurette (“Pure Lethal! New Angles, New Scenes, and Explosive Outtakes”), a lively and interesting commentary with Donner, producer J. Mills Goodloe, and associate producer Geoff Johns, and the original trailer.  The best material is the newly produced stuff on disc five; Warner has commissioned four retrospective documentaries about the making of the franchise (“Psycho Pension: The Genesis of Lethal Weapon,” “A Family Affair: Bringing Lethal Weapon to Life,” “Pulling the Trigger: Expanding the World of Lethal Weapon,” and “Maximum Impact: The Legacy of Lethal Weapon”) which bring together the series’ key architects (Donner, Gibson, Glover, Joel Silver, and more).  Taken together, this nearly two hours of footage is everything a Lethal Weapon fan could want, and it certainly outpaces Donner’s 1 – 3 commentary tracks.

Subpar audio commentaries aside, this is a comprehensive and exciting release for one of the most important film franchises of the last thirty years.

The Lethal Weapon Collection is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

–Note: Click HERE for Lethal Weapon’s official WBShop link and HERE for Warner Bros’ Facebook page.

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