Richard Donner (Superman) has an understanding of the balance of grand spectacle and more subtle moments. The opening aerial shot and the tenuous desert rendezvous with a helicopter churning up sand capture our attention. But it’s the little bits of humor and vulnerability that make the showmanship of Lethal Weapon ultimately worth it. There’s a vibrancy that runs through Shane Black’s script in both the action sequences and character-driven moments.
It’s the quintessential buddy cop action film that in many ways defines the ’80s and that’s because it has a different slant. That’s part of the secret to its success. The main man (Danny Glover) is different and it’s not simply because he’s African-American. His family holds an important place in his life and he’s a genuine person — not an action hero. His partner in crime (Mel Gibson) also has his own deal. We meet Riggs in an abandoned trailer with bedhead, smoking and drinking a beer before he’s even awake. The loss of his wife causes him to contemplate suicide and everyone on the force questions his sanity. But when duty calls these two men are thrown together and out of their initial incompatibility comes mutual respect and genuine fun. As an audience, we enjoy watching them together.
What sets Lethal Weapon apart is how the violence is almost a side thought because what really matters are the characters and their relationships. Friends and family are important. Certainly, there are profane moments but they come in moments of extreme provocation. There’s even gratuitous violence at times but there’s consequence to it, more often than not.
Those in trouble are not simply damsels in distress because most everyone is in the same boat. Martin and Roger both are put in danger, captured and tortured. They don’t just dispense retribution. Their lives and families are put on the line too. However, it’s easy to point out the fact that some characters are killed, most notably in the opening moments, and they feel like mere plot points. For such reasons, the film’s certainly not perfect.
Also, its final moments are admittedly out there. It could be a scene out of Mad Max as Mel Gibson battles in the deluge of a spewing fire hydrant nearly to the death. The question is why, can’t they just arrest the culprit? It’s this scene that allows the character of Riggs to get his desired resolution. In fact, both he and Roger Murtaugh earn a bit of satisfaction as they rise up above the tumult. They are a pair of lethal weapons. But what matters most is that after a hard days work they can get together for a mediocre Christmas dinner. That’s true friendship.