Danny Glover, Mel Gibson (Photo: Warner Bros.)

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

By the time the first Lethal Weapon opened across the United States in March of 1987, the “buddy cop” genre wasn’t yet played out, but it was getting there. Screenwriter Shane Black was in his mid-20s at the time and fluent in both the conventions and the underlying cool of macho American action pictures. He knew noir and Dirty Harry and the steely strength of Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris. For his first produced screenplay, Black took the best clichés from his favorite movies and honed them until they cut. Lethal Weapon’s heroes were edgier. And thanks in large part to the all-in commitment of director Richard Donner and producer Joel Silver, its chases and shoot-outs were more destructive. This one modestly budgeted genre exercise pumped hot blood back into a stiffening body.

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The original also inspired sequels, which were more preposterously violent yet also somehow cuddlier. Black’s vision gave way to a succession of screenwriters who worked with Donner and Silver to make films that mixed humanist messages and charming banter with incongruously enormous body counts. The apotheosis of what the series would become can be found in the opening credits of Lethal Weapon 3, which runs images of fire and explosions over a soft-rock ballad by Sting and Eric Clapton. By the time the movie franchise ended (for now) in 1998, it had become increasingly ungainly, running on a jury-rigged assembly of incompatible parts.

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The most important pieces still worked though: Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, as Roger Murtaugh and Martin Riggs, two mismatched LAPD detectives who keep stumbling onto major cases. Film by film, the Lethal Weapons added characters who were popular enough with fans to stick around for the next one, such as Joe Pesci as eager hustler Leo Getz, and Rene Russo as tightly wound internal affairs investigator Lorna Cole. But even at the start, when the franchise was at its grittiest, the easy give-and-take between Murtaugh and Riggs was the core appeal. Glover at the time was a respected theater actor who’d only had a few major film roles, while Gibson was the hottest hunk in Hollywood. Both made the most of a chance to play heroes who from moment to moment could be funny, maudlin, or badass.

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Given the mishmash to come, it’s strange now to revisit the first Lethal Weapon and recall that the series once had such a distinctive point of view. Black would go on to write The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which he’d also direct), putting his personal stamp on twisty stories about gun-toting men of action. There’s not much of a stylistic or thematic gap between the 1987 Lethal Weapon and Black’s most recent film as a writer-director, the shaggy L.A. retro-noir The Nice Guys. Both films open with the spectacular death of a nude woman. Both have scenes set at Christmas (which is a recurring Black motif). Both bring together mismatched partners who bond over the violence in their pasts. Both put a hero’s daughter in harm’s way. And both feature a widower whose grief has made him dangerously unstable—and thus more effective in the fight against the unscrupulous.

It’s that last element that the sequels had the hardest time getting right—in part because the arc of Black’s original script ends with its “lethal weapon” literally giving up his ammo. Gibson’s Riggs is suicidal over his wife’s recent death when the movie opens and carries a hollow-point bullet that he intends to use on himself the moment he stops deriving any satisfaction from the one thing in his life that still matters: his job. But meeting Murtaugh gives him someone to talk to and someone to stay alive for. In the film’s concluding scene, Riggs hands his partner the bullet, as a Christmas present. After that, in the next three pictures, he’d become more of a run-of-the-mill loose cannon—whose glibness about the collateral damage would be a lot harder to justify.

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In Lethal Weapon, that damage is also more human-scaled. Black and Donner establish early and often that their two leads live in the real world. When he’s alone at home, Riggs has the TV on, watching Looney Tunes, Three Stooges, and Family Feud. Murtaugh, meanwhile, good-naturedly suffers the ribbing of his wife and kids for his age and fustiness. At the start of the film—when the troubled Riggs is transferred from narcotics to homicide and partnered with a skeptical Murtaugh—the wall between the cops’ personal lives and the sickos they meet on the streets is fairly solid. But it crumbles as the story plays out, and as the heroes’ respective military experiences lead them to a heroin-smuggling operation involving ex-special forces operatives who have no compunction about going after Murtaugh’s home and family.

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Like a lot of Black’s subsequent work, Lethal Weapon treads a fine line between high-stakes violence—where the good guys get seriously hurt, physically and emotionally—and “it’s only a movie” winks at the audience. One fiend gets shot while swilling eggnog by a bullet that pierces the carton. At another point, one of the villains says, “There’s no more heroes left in the world,” right before Riggs bursts in to save the day (while triumphant music plays). Later a shirtless Riggs and his impressively full head of hair square off against the movie’s blond-coiffed bad guy (played by Gary Busey) under the spray from a busted fire hydrant. The scene’s eroticism is gloriously shameless.

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Lethal Weapon wasn’t a “tentpole” project for Warner Bros. It was more of a plugger—a relatively inexpensive genre piece to slip into cinemas between the prestige movie season and the summer blockbusters. But the film was well-reviewed and became a sizable box-office success, raising expectations (and costs) for each installment that followed. Over time, this resulted in an increased hedging of bets. Lethal Weapon 2, 3, and 4 all kept the parts that worked in the previous chapters, while also trying to top them.

Some of that continuity is welcome, such as the way so many of the same actors remain in the same bit parts through all four. Some becomes more dated year to year, like the ’80s-beer-commercial-ready Michael Kamen scores (featuring Clapton’s bluesy guitar stings and David Sanborn’s distractingly ubiquitous sax). And some of the repetition is just silly, like the way each movie seems to put Murtaugh’s loved ones in more and more danger.

The biggest change after the first Lethal Weapon would be the loss of Black, who wrote a script for Lethal Weapon 2 that was rejected for being too dark. (He’d reportedly planned to take Riggs’ story of redemption to its logical conclusion by having him die to save Murtaugh.) Black’s absence wasn’t immediately crippling, though it was noticeable. From 2 on, Donner and Silver’s more crowd-pleasing sensibilities dominate, without the cocked eyebrows that framed the first movie.

The second and third films in particular seem united in their certainty that what people loved about the original were the explosive set pieces and the nonstop chitchat. Both movies have plots that express a progressive social consciousness: In 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2, the bad guys are racist South Africans, while in 1992’s Lethal Weapon 3, the boys try to prevent arms dealers from peddling automatic weapons and armor-piercing bullets. But what really stands out about these two is their blitheness. Gibson’s Riggs in particular ramps up the quips and puns—even when he’s gunning down his adversaries—to the point where the dialogue and situations sometimes feel contrived to fit the joke. (In 3, for example, Russo’s Cole awkwardly asks, “Are you trying to bait me?” mainly so that Riggs can zing back, “I’m a master at it!”)

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That’s not to say that either 2 or 3 is a bad movie. The third film has way too many moments that push too far toward the absurd—including an opening sequence where Riggs nonchalantly blows up a building—and the second has a house-destroying climax that strains credulity. But in the wake of Lethal Weapon, producers across Hollywood had started running the buddy-cop concept into the ground, which made 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2 a reminder of how to do this schtick right, with just as much emphasis on loose character interaction as on violent action. The most memorable scene in 2—where Murtaugh finds himself sitting on a toilet rigged to explode if he stands—is a prime example of how humor, compassion, and camaraderie can boost a simple cop picture. The situation is silly, but Glover and Gibson play up both the comedy and the anxiety.

Both 2 and 3 also benefit from the presence of Pesci, who in 1989 had yet to appear in Goodfellas, Home Alone, or My Cousin Vinny. Pesci’s comic chops were something of a revelation in the second film, where his opinionated, fastidious, motormouthed Getz is almost like a human cartoon—the kind that Riggs would watch on TV. The character is more shoehorned into 3, where he doesn’t really serve an obvious narrative function; but given that Pesci essentially retired from acting by the end of the decade (after Lethal Weapon 4), his best performances are retroactively more precious.

As is often the case with long-running series, the Lethal Weapons serve as an inadvertent document of our changing times. The first film prominently features VHS tapes, Family Feud host Richard Dawson, and a portable phone that’s the size of a satchel. And in the fourth film, characters are carrying hand-sized cellulars and complaining about the crappy service. Donner’s decision to keep casting the same actors also means that fans of the movies get to watch Murtaugh’s kids grow up over the course of a decade and see him agonize over his eldest daughter’s at-times-racy acting career (which gets him razzed by his colleagues).

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On the whole, though, it’s remarkable how little the movies change between 1987 and 1998. There’s a style to the Lethal Weapons—a blend of rapid-fire editing, jaw-dropping stunts, and incessant commentary—that was state-of-the-art when the series began and dated by the end. These films are bombastic in a way that often plays better now when hip action pictures knowingly pay homage to the series (or when it gets mocked, as It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia did so memorably).

That’s what makes Lethal Weapon 4 the most fascinating of the films since the first one, even though it’s by far the worst. The story involves the smuggling of Chinese slave labor into the country, which raises a serious social issue, but also leads to the heroes killing a lot of Asian people while making bad jokes. Worse, every time Murtaugh says his signature line, “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit,” he’s distressingly easy to believe—as is Riggs, who’s about to settle down with a pregnant Cole. After a long layoff between the sequels, Lethal Weapon returned in 1998 into a motion picture landscape where Quentin Tarantino and John Woo had become the new mainstream (however briefly) and where the Hollywood that produced Black and Silver was seen as a relic of Reagan-era decadence.

The fourth movie adjusts to this some by bringing in Jet Li as a deadly, agile Triad enforcer, and Chris Rock as a hilariously foulmouthed cop (and Murtaugh’s secret son-in-law). But 4 is also the most expensive of the foursome—with a budget estimated at over $100 million, or over three times what 3 reportedly cost—and the enormity of the production sinks it. Everything lumbers. It takes 45 minutes for the plot to kick in, and even after it’s resolved, the film keeps rolling for another 15 minutes to tie up all the subplots. Scenes run on too long and are overstuffed with characters, all of whom laugh way too much, as though trying to persuade the audience that they’re having a great time.

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More than any other entry in the franchise, Lethal Weapon 4 feels like a couple of R-rated episodes of a long-running TV show—made in an era when “R-rated TV” was barely a thing. And now Lethal Weapon is actually going to make the jump to television on Fox this fall, with Damon Wayans playing Murtaugh and Clayne Crawford as Riggs. It won’t be adults only, which means it’ll likely be further than ever from the fiercely vulgar “finding hope in hopelessness” howling of Black.

Or will it? There’s a lot about the Lethal Weapon concept that could translate well to a weekly network series: the existential angst that settles in when a virile force for good begins aging or the way the movies flip the norm by focusing on a black family with one token white friend. At the least, there has to be something to any remake that evokes the original, besides the characters’ names. The real betrayal of the original Lethal Weapon would be if future franchise-holders just regenerate the buddy-cop formula again, but processed and watered down until it’s utterly flavorless.

Final ranking:

1. Lethal Weapon (1987)
2. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
3. Lethal Weapon 3 (1992)
4. Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)

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