Ah, the eighties. When action films had gratuitous nudity and ultra violence, and every protagonist and antagonist was a traumatized Vietnam veteran. From a cynical cinematic point of view, Vietnam was timed precisely so that just as it was becoming too much of a stretch to say that contemporary movie characters were World War II or Korean War veterans, there was another war which could be used for cheap and easy characterization. Need an edgy character with a thousand yard stare? Just say they were in the last war.
When I first saw Lethal Weapon, I was ten years old and home sick from school at my grandma’s house. My grandma was decidedly old-fashioned when it came to nursing sick children. She believed that there was no sickness that could not be healed by giant Costco hot dogs, bowls of ice cream big enough to induce diabetic seizures, and shoot-em-ups. The healing process of course was aided by not telling Mom. If a ten year old sees an R-rated movie and his mother doesn’t know, does he really see it at all?
Without lapsing into nostalgia, that first Lethal Weapon still feels fresh, before the films degenerated into cartoon versions of the original. It’s unclear why National Lampoon even bothered with a parody version, the third and fourth Lethal Weapon films did that themselves. There have been many imitations of the original, the endless pairings of mismatched detectives in self-aware buddy-cop shit fests, but the original still stands on its own, not quite fitting into the sub-genre that it spawned.
See, the film invests in real darkness in the characters instead of just having the two cops play off each other with self-conscious one-liners. Gibson’s Riggs is a genuinely screwed up man, teetering constantly on the edge of a complete mental breakdown. He’s not zany, he’s suicidal. And that’s genuine suicidal, not the patented movie version of suicidal that’s just a short hand for someone who takes mad risks because they just don’t care anymore. This is a man who carries around a hollow point and contemplates every morning whether today’s the day that he’ll swallow it. The acting job that Mel Gibson does on this broken man is harrowing, so much that the scene in which he decides not to pull the trigger this time was what prompted Zeffirelli to cast Gibson as Hamlet. Glover plays Murtaugh as the straight man of the two, but his reactions are genuine, he’s not playing to cliché in the least.
The film ratchets tension bit by bit as it goes, never quite letting up or giving the characters anything but Pyrrhic victories. By the time that Riggs and Murtaugh are captured, the movie has gone fully dark. Even at twenty years remove, the tension stays taut here, on first watching there’s the question of whether any of them or going to get out alive at all. The script and actors play the desperation well enough to maintain that disbelief all the way until the end. The director allowed the film to be dark enough that it was plausible that it would all end in blood, so that the happy ending feels earned instead of obligatory.
It’s a shame that the movie feels the need in the final act to top itself, with Gibson’s absurd and unnecessary wrestling match with Gary Busey. This few minutes is the sole part of the movie that feels like the rest of the sub-genre: ho-ho old chum, what say you we rastle a bit before they haul you away in the paddywagon! But having won with might grunts, I shall not kill you because I am the good guy. A ha! But you inevitably grab a weapon from the incompetent police officers around you so I have justification to shoot you dead! Cheerio!
That ending still smarts, because with the excellence and darkness leading up to that point, it just falls completely short of the set-up. Think if it had veered into Seven territory, Murtaugh’s family dead, leaving him widowed like Riggs. Think of Riggs simply executing Joshua, damn the consequences. The point is that there were very dark places the movie could have gone to in that last scene, places that would have seared the entire film into our brains instead of launching a thousand buddy-cop flicks.
Watching it again, I’d forgotten how absolutely grounded that first film of the series is in the late-eighties and the legacy of Vietnam. Riggs? Special forces in Vietnam. Murtaugh? He was over there in 1965. Their informant? Old army friend of Murtaugh’s who took a bayonet for him in the Drang Valley. The bad guys? An old army special ops unit who got disgruntled in Vietnam and have turned to drug smuggling. Their torturer? A Vietnamese guy.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie isn’t about Vietnam in any real way. The story doesn’t draw some half-assed parallels of how the cocaine wars were like Vietnam on American streets, or some other eye-rolling metaphor. But it’s interesting that despite the story not having the slightest plot connection to Vietnam, every character (other than Murtaugh’s wife and kids) with more than 30 seconds of screen time is a Vietnam veteran. It’s trite to say that the things that preoccupy a culture are often invisible until the distance of decades casts sharp shadows around them, but when seen in action it prompts reflection about the present. Not something so cut and dry as wondering what our Vietnam is, but wondering what things are invisible to us that will be anything but twenty years hence.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.