1987 is a motherfucker. I mean, it’s great. If you’re looking at the history of action movies, 1987 gives you an absolute bounty of riches. It’s the height of Hollywood’s kinetic, big-budget, hyperviolent action-blockbuster wave. As a nice little bonus, most of the biggest hits were also the best movies, something that doesn’t always happen. Three of the greatest, most iconic franchise-starter movies in the genre’s history came out that year, and that’s only a problem if you write a column where you pick the single most important action movie of every year and write about it. But I do happen to write a column like that, so 1987 is a motherfucker.
If I have to pick a single favorite movie—action or otherwise—in history, it’s Paul Verhoeven’s icy, remorseless, bleaker-than-bleak sci-fi splatter-satire RoboCop. The planets had to align just right to allow for the existence of a movie that funny, that disgusting, that exciting, that endlessly quotable, and that uncomfortably profitable. This is a movie that satirizes the Hollywood bloodlust of its era while satisfying that bloodlust better than any other movie ever would. It’s a movie where one henchman plunges into a vat of toxic waste, turns into a skin-melting mutant, and then explodes into windshield-muck gore when a car hits him—and it’s a movie that was also adapted into two different children’s cartoons. It’s an absolutely glorious miracle, yet it’s not the movie I picked this week.
By that same token, John McTiernan’s Predator is a classic of the form in every way. It puts Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the absolute apex of his powers, at the head of a team of iconic movie badasses. It drops that team into the South American jungle for some beautifully executed Chuck Norris-style bloodletting. And then it pits that team against a truly great alien monster, one whose intentions are immediately discernible. The Predator monster almost seems like it could be some other planet’s Schwarzenegger equivalent, a proud and macho warrior who wants to test himself against the best fighters Earth has to offer. It’s an endlessly fun movie, of a type that they were really only making for that brief little sliver of time. But it’s not the movie I picked this week, either.
Instead, that distinction has to go to Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon, which defined and codified the buddy-cop movie. It established the tone, made the rules, and set the high-water mark for the subgenre. It was also important in other ways. Even though Mel Gibson had played Mad Max in three movies before Lethal Weapon, he hadn’t really played mad until he took on the frantic, wild-eyed, self-destructive role of Martin Riggs—and then he continued to play variations on that role, both in his movies and in his private life, for decades afterward. The movie also established the voice of Shane Black, the hotshot young screenwriter whose style was a virtuoso blend of hard-boiled tough-guy aphorism, gallows-humor catchphrase wisecracks, and plotting so byzantine that it essentially ceased to matter. Even the dated, awful Michael Kamen/Eric Clapton/David Sanborn blues-noodle/sax-tootle score inspired hordes of imitators.
Even if you look at it purely in terms of the numbers, Lethal Weapon beats both RoboCop and Predator. Lethal Weapon made more money than either of the other two, even though they all had roughly equivalent budgets. And while they all spawned franchises, Lethal Weapon started the biggest one. RoboCop got two sequels and a reboot. Predator got one sequel, one reboot, and two appallingly shitty Alien Vs. Predator spinoffs that we will never mention again. Lethal Weapon, meanwhile, got three sequels—one great, two at least watchable—as well as a brand-new TV reboot that, judging by the one episode I just watched, is both fairly generic and pretty great. There’s a car-chase scene in the pilot that takes place on a racetrack while a Formula One race is going on, and in that scene, Riggs 2.0 jumps onto a bad guy’s roof, holds onto it for dear life, and then forces the car to crash by punching the bad guy in the face through the window—so, you know, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the show is not good.
But the real legacy of Lethal Weapon is that it’s the greatest buddy-cop movie ever made. (Its only competition is Lethal Weapon 2.) It’s not the first buddy-cop movie; plenty had come before. Dirty Harry always had partners who had to win his grudging respect. You can spot the beginnings of the dynamic in Sean Connery’s friendship with Jack Lord in Dr. No, or in ’60s and ’70s movies like In The Heat Of The Night and Freebie And The Bean. The movie that really turned the buddy-cop movie into its own genre was Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs., from 1982, even though one of its cops was a convict on temporary release and not an actual cop. That movie established the black/white racial dynamic, the hard-won respect, the gruff back-and-forth shit-talk, and the beats where the two partners save each other’s asses. Lethal Weapon took all those elements and turned them into a science.
In Martin Riggs, Gibson created one of the all-time great loose-cannon cop figures. He’d turn into more of a comedian as the series went on, but the Riggs we meet in Lethal Weapon is dark. As the movie starts, he’s crying, with a gun in his mouth, while watching cartoons in his trailer. Like John Rambo, he’s a disturbed Vietnam vet who was once an elite soldier. (Telling a story about a long-range assassination: “Maybe eight or even 10 people in the world could’ve made that shot. It’s the only thing I was ever good at.”) But the real reason he’s disturbed is that his wife is dead; we never even learn the backstory because we don’t have to. Like his spiritual ancestor Dirty Harry Callahan, Riggs uses dangerous tactics to get a suicidal loser down from a ledge, but Harry never made it look like he was about to jump as well. Riggs actually seems like he’d be happy to die. Even his sharp banter is heavy. (Murtaugh, complaining about teaming up with this psycho: “God hates me, that’s what it is.” Riggs: “Hate him back. Works for me.”)
Murtaugh, meanwhile, is Riggs’ complementary opposite. He’s an aging, charming family man who still has a lot to live for. He just wants to make it home at the end of the day, and unlike his equivalents in a lot of shittier movies, that never makes him seem like a wet blanket. He’s a badass and a Vietnam vet, just like Riggs, but the experience didn’t shake him in the same way. (Writing this column, it’s been amazing to see how heavily Vietnam figures into the larger-than-life action movies of the ’80s. The villains in Lethal Weapon are war-hangover figures too, secret black-ops veterans and ex-CIA guys and mercenaries still bringing in heroin from Asia.) But when Murtaugh’s family is threatened, he becomes an icy killing machine just like Riggs. Nobody ever remarks on the fact that he’s black and Riggs is white, but it’s a definite undercurrent, especially in the scene where a group of kids asks Murtaugh if cops shoot black people.
Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner was one of Hollywood’s great veteran guns-for-hire, and his filmography is a weird one. Before directing all four Lethal Weapon movies, he’d made The Omen, Superman: The Movie, The Goonies, and Ladyhawke. Immediately after Lethal Weapon, he’d make Scrooged. He was never an action specialist, but Lethal Weapon is an extremely effective piece of pop filmmaking, a movie that gets all the little things right. It’s a triumph of casting, of pacing, of editing, of stunt-work.
Gibson and Glover had an easy, unforced chemistry that no other buddy-cop movie ever quite rivaled. There’s a real charisma in Gibson’s intensity; he’s so magnetic that, after a few minutes, his insane lion’s-mane mullet stops being so distracting. Glover, meanwhile, is all kind but leathery authority; he’s absolutely crucial for helping to ground Gibson. As the chief henchman with the big final death, Gary Busey is all toothy glower. The plot keeps moving in ways that force you to stop worrying about what the hell is going on, only slowing down for the Murtaugh-family dinner scenes that establish the movie’s personal stakes. A shot of a helicopter silhouetted against a sunset is one of those beautifully archetypal ’80s action-movie images that will always stay with me.
Riggs’ best moment in the movie might be one of his last. He’s got Gary Busey’s Joshua dead to rights, and he could arrest him or kill him right there. Instead, he challenges him to a fight, and Murtaugh has to hold the small army of arriving cops at bay, letting Riggs and Joshua finish the fight. It ends when Riggs throws a triangle choke on Joshua; I’m pretty sure it’s the first time any movie character ever tried a hold like that. (Brazilian jiu-jitsu master Rorion Gracie served as a consultant on the movie. Six years later, he would co-found the UFC.) Then it ends again when Joshua springs back up and yanks away a cop’s gun, forcing Riggs and Murtaugh to both wheel around and shoot him.
It’s not a perfect movie; the world could really do without Riggs referring to the great ’80s-movie stock bad guy Al Leong as a “chink.” But the movie goes a long way toward redeeming itself a couple of minutes later, when a villain tells Murtaugh that there are no heroes left in the world and Riggs immediately bursts in, berserker-raging and shooting guns in every direction. It’s a clear signal: If there are heroes left, they’re flawed and fucked-up and damaged beyond belief. In the years after, action movies would focus less on the Stallone/Schwarzenegger übermensch type and more on broken heroes like Riggs.
Other notable action movies of 1987: The year’s twin runners-up are the aforementioned RoboCop and Predator, two truly influential movies in their own right. But even beyond the three big movies, 1987 is just bursting with greatness. It might be Schwarzenegger’s greatest year, between Predator and the gleaming, absurd live-action video-game The Running Man, another movie that works just as well if you watch it as straight-up carnage or as satire. That same year, Timothy Dalton debuted as a dialed-back, intense James Bond in The Living Daylights, working as a corrective to his smirking predecessor Roger Moore. Walter Hill staged his own present-day version of The Wild Bunch with the great Extreme Prejudice, sending Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, and Michael Ironside off to recite badass monologues at each other before trying to shoot each other.
The Death Wish franchise was running on fumes at this point, but it’s still fun to watch Charles Bronson take his fight to mob bosses in Death Wish 4. Burt Reynolds did his best to seem unhinged while fighting a small-town crime lord in Malone. And while Brian De Palma’s movie version of The Untouchables was more of a period crime epic than an action movie, it still has some memorable action scenes, including an absolutely classic train-station shootout that John Woo would spend the next few years trying to outdo.
Other than the big three, though, my favorite American action movie of the year would have to be The Hidden, a knowingly funny and ridiculous sci-fi sprint. An alien serial killer comes to earth—a giant slug who crawls into his victims’ throats, possessing them and causing as much mayhem as possible. In his different host bodies, he guns down bystanders, steals fast cars, and blasts ’80s metal in inappropriate public spots. Meanwhile, Kyle MacLachlan, as a mysterious intergalactic cop who never fully seems convincingly human, has to team up with a hardbitten human detective who eventually figures out that something weird is going on. I love the shit out of this movie. Both The Hidden and the aforementioned Extreme Prejudice are overlooked gems; you shouldn’t sleep on either of them.
Exciting things were happening elsewhere in the world, too. With A Better Tomorrow II, John Woo further refined the gorgeous, melodramatic gunfights that he pretty much invented with the first movie. He also figured out that he couldn’t make a movie like that without the great Chow Yun-Fat, even if Chow’s character had died in the first movie, so he just decided that Chow’s character had a twin brother that nobody had bothered to mention before. Chow also appeared in a movie that might’ve been even more important: Ringo Lam’s undercover-cop melodrama City On Fire, which climaxed with a jewelry-store robbery that almost certainly served as an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs a few years later. For a while, it was cool to complain that Tarantino had ripped off Lam’s movie wholesale, but that’s not really the case; it’s more that Lam presented a scenario, and Tarantino used that situation to take off running. Still, City On Fire is a good movie, and it’s fun to see the elements that someone else would use to make a great one.
Jackie Chan continued to build his legend with Project A 2, making something dependably goofy and fun even though he didn’t have Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, his co-stars in the original, around for the sequel. But Sammo Hung probably outperformed his old friend and schoolmate in 1987, since that’s the year Hung made Eastern Condors, a men-on-a-mission war movie that still has some of the greatest all-out madcap kung-fu battle scenes of the ’80s. And over in Norway, director Nils Gaup dug into his own country’s legends with Pathfinder, a period thriller in which a lone kid takes on a bloodthirsty band of marauders.
Next time: Motherfucking Die Hard.