Cinema Showdown is a new segment here at MFR, where we (or I) pit two comparable films – sometimes sequels of the same franchise, other times pictures sharing the same fanbase, era, or anything else noteworthy – and try to arbitrarily decide which one is superior. There seems no better place to kick this off, as we inch closer to The Nice Guys this weekend, than looking back at the franchise that introduced us all to Shane Black: Lethal Weapon v. Lethal Weapon 2.
Way back in 1987, the idea of a buddy cop film was still a fresh perspective on the action genre. It had been done before Lethal Weapon, most notably with 48 Hrs., but Lethal Weapon would quickly become a watershed moment in American action cinema, spawning a franchise of its own alongside too many cheap imitations to count. We all know the general mechanics of the plot, the characters, and the imprint Lethal Weapon had on society as a whole. The movie was a massive hit. It made Mel Gibson a superstar, playing the edgy, suicidal Matin Riggs, and it opened an entirely new avenue of genre filmmaking for Danny Glover, the tired family vet Roger Murtaugh.
It also spawned three sequels, two of which became self parodies. Lethal Weapon 3 is a noted step down in quality and energy from the previous films, and the less said about the racially problematic (to say the least) Lethal Weapon 4, the better. What’s most glaringly absent from those two sequels is the presence of Shane Black in the writing credits.
But then there was Lethal Weapon 2.
It might be easy to reflexively call the original the best. Most of the time that’s true, and in this case there is more than a credible argument in favor of the iconic 1987 intro to Riggs and Murtaugh. But there’s a case to be made for Lethal Weapon 2 as well, which benefits from a certain comfort level with these characters, their comfort level with one another, a compelling set of global villains, and some effective comedic energy.
The Case for Lethal Weapon
Again, anointing Lethal Weapon as the best of the franchise is understandable. It has the benefit of being the first, so it will forever be the freshest for obvious reasons. It’s also decidedly darker and more threatening, from Richard Donner’s noir-like, shadowy frames and rain soaked LA streets, to the despair clouding the volatile and dangerous Martin Riggs. It has an edge which was steadily sanded down in the next three films.
There is also a rich post-Vietnam narrative shaping the plot. Both Riggs and Murtaugh had their own experiences in the war, and the villains are disenfranchised Vietnam vets who’ve found the heroin trade from their days in Southeast Asia to be quite lucrative stateside. Be it Gary Busey’s icy psychopath Mr. Joshua or the mastermind General (Mitchell Ryan), these are threatening adversaries for two LA cops, and the investigation goes deep into the histories of these characters. They bounce off one another not only in the thrust of the plot, but in their shared pasts which subsequently propelled them to opposite sides of the law.
Lethal Weapon is a fantastic thriller and a singular moment in pop culture. The idea of a sequel made sense, but the sequel needed a new identity. Wallowing in the darkness of a suicidal Riggs and a world-weary Murtaugh had to be tweaked and reshaped to make each new adventure feel new, but familiar. Did Lethal Weapon 2 succeed?
The Case for Lethal Weapon 2
As much as Lethal Weapon would be the easy choice as the best in the franchise, Lethal Weapon 2 succeeded in summiting its uphill climb. Sequels are inferior, we know this, and when a sequel bests its predecessor it’s a monumental achievement. Lethal Weapon 2 pulls off the near impossible, for a number of reasons. First of all, Riggs and Murtaugh are different, but the still the same. The friendship these two polar opposites forged in the end of the original film has carried over seamlessly here. Riggs is still a wild card, but he’s found love and camaraderie with Murtaugh and his family. He’s the crazy uncle, and it eases the manic tension hanging heavy in the air in the original.
At the same time, Murtaugh has found a new lease on his career. As put out as he seems with Riggs time and time again, it is Riggs’ infectious energy that reinvigorates Murtaugh as a cop. We pick up with these two in the middle of an intense car chase, and almost immediately their relationship feels as if it’s evolved along a believable trajectory. They have a rapport, and the comedy flourishes because of this.
The entire narrative momentum and plot structure of Lethal Weapon 2 feels profoundly different from the original as well. This time, the cops are chasing South African crooks, and the Apartheid comes into focus and manages to deepen Murtaugh’s plight. These are not only vicious killers, but racist vicious killers, motivating Murtaugh even more. Meanwhile, Riggs meets and falls head over heels in love with the villain’s secretary, Rika, played by the serenely beautiful Patsy Kensit. Despite the fact Riggs and Rika fall into each others arms in near record time, even for an action movie, their relationship feels genuine and the chemistry between Gibson and Kensit is honest and palpable. Their romance is fleeting and emotional, and when Rika is murdered coldly by her employers, it allows the film to bring insane, unhinged Matin Riggs back into the fold at just the right time.
There are so many details woven into the tapestry of Lethal Weapon 2 that enhance its development, its re-watchability, and its brisk energy. The real that the henchman (Derrick O’Connor) was responsible for the death of Riggs’ wife tightens this universe substantially. The undercurrent of racism adds motivation. That little detail about Riggs being able to separate his shoulder plays into the story beautifully. Who can forget the toilet bomb too? Iconic. And the inclusion of Joe Pesci as mob witness Leo Getz works to perfection. At least it does here, because in both of the next two films Pesci’s presence is an irritant.
In the original story from Shane Black (Jeffrey Boam was the credited screenwriter), Martin Riggs was supposed to die after suffering his knife wounds and subsequent ass kicking from Vorstedt (O’Connor). But this is Hollywood, and Riggs survived. It may have been a bad idea given the next two films, but in the context of the film itself Riggs surviving actually works better. It strengthens the bond between he and Murtaugh, and allows Riggs’ redemption for the death of two women in his life to feel better than it would have had he died.
All things considered, Lethal Weapon 2 pulls off the near impossible: it surpasses its predecessor on enough levels to edge out the win.