Lethal Weapon 4
Screenplay : Channing Gibson (from a story by Jonathan Lemkin, Alfred Gough, and Miles Millar)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Mel Gibson (Martin Riggs), Danny Glover (Roger Murtaugh), Joe Pesci (Leo Getz), Rene Russo (Lorna Cole), Chris Rock (Lee Butters), Jet Li (Wah Sing Ku), Stuart Wilson (Captain Travis)
The "Lethal Weapon" series has long since achieved the comfortable feel of a Woody Allen movie. Like Allen's immediately recognizable on-screen persona, Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) have become so familiar as characters and they co-exist so easily in their own buddy cop universe, that even when the script isn't dynamite, they still make it work by virtue of their mere existence as great characters. Granted, they've changed a great deal since the first "Lethal Weapon" slammed into theaters more than a decade ago, but they're still Riggs and Murtaugh, one of the best cop duos in the history of the movies.
This fourth time around, Riggs and Murtaugh find themselves up against Asian bad guys who illegally import indentured slaves and run an elaborate counterfeiting business. Since the first installment allowed our two heroes to take care of some ex-CIA-turned-evil operatives, the second film had them taking on dirty South African diplomats, and the third pitted them against an ex-cop gun runner, it would seem that there are few interesting bad guys left. However, the script by Channing Gibson (creator of TV's "Murder One") from a story by Jonathan Lemkin, Alfred Gough, and Miles Millar, creates some menacing martial arts masters for the boys to take down, even if the plot development is somewhat confusing.
Fronting the list of evil doers is Wah Sing Ku , who redefines "silent but deadly." He is played with sinister malice by Jet Li, the latest superstar import from Hong Kong. Li has the same lightning fast moves as Jackie Chan, but each chop and kick and slice (given additional resonance by punishing sound effects) is edged with sadistic relish, rather than comic glee. He's like Chan possessed by an evil demon.
Also along for the ride are some familiar characters from the previous films, including the always talkative Leo Getz (Joe Pesci), who has traded in his money laundering schemes for a private eye badge, and Rene Russo as Lorna Cole, the internal affairs officer from "Lethal Weapon 3" who was Gibson's love interest, and is now the soon-to-be-mother of his child. The movie also introduces a new character, a young police detective named Lee Butters (Chris Rock). Murtaugh mistakenly thinks Butters has homosexual inclinations toward him, but in fact, Butters and Murtaugh share a much closer relationship than Murtaugh knows. The development of this plot strand is the most out-in-out comedic aspect of the film, and it works.
The Chris Rock character is indicative of the gradual progression of the "Lethal Weapon" series. Since the first film in 1987, the movies have been moving from the more serious tone of the first film where the catch was the idea that Mel Gibson was a suicidal cop so he didn't care whether he lived or died, to a much lighter, more slap-stick feel. Any notions of Riggs being crazy dissipated by the end of the second installment, and now he's just a regular movie cop -- the kind who acts crazy by our standards, but is more or less regular by cop movie standards.
"Lethal Weapon 4" offers its handful of impressive stunt-filled action scenes to go with the broad strokes of humor. There's one delirious highway car chase scene, involving a fight in a moving trailer home as well as Riggs and Murtaugh actually driving through a high-rise building. There's also the obligatory one-on-one showdown at the end of the film, which like its predecessors, features the movie's most graphic violence. Although most of this is routine action fare, Gibson and Glover make it work through their characters.
One of the things I like best about the "Lethal Weapon" movies is how Gibson and Glover react during scenes of danger. Unlike the Jean-Claude Van Damme's and Steven Seagal's of the world, Gibson and Glover act more or less like real people. Granted, they put themselves into ridiculously dangerous situations, but they react accordingly. They yell and argue and spit and scream and cuss and act indecisive. They don't approach each situation like it's scripted, but rather like they're making it up as they go along.
Although "Lethal Weapon 4" is certainly the least of the series, it is a fun popcorn experience. Director Richard Donner, who has helmed the previous three films, knows this area like the back of his hand. He understands that the centerpiece of the film is the balance between over-the-top action and the on-going relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh, which he lets develop and play itself out along natural lines. If only all action movies had characters this good.
©1998 James Kendrick