For whatever reason, Lethal Weapon never gets the same sort of Christmas love as Die Hard, its 80s holiday action brother-from-another-mother. The debut of John McClane will forever be linked to the yuletide season, but Lethal Weapon is strangely overlooked in the category of tangential holiday classic. It may have even more Christmas imagery than Die Hard, but for whatever reason it’s ignored during the silly season. It could be because Lethal Weapon, for all its success and groundbreaking redefinition of the action genre, is a much darker, more threatening film. Sure, Die Hard may be a damn-near perfect action film top to bottom, but Lethal Weapon has something sinister boiling beneath its surface – a surface that has been redefined after years of increasingly cartoonish sequels – and a third act where the dynamic is deconstructed for something strange, minimalist, and arguably brilliant.
Give this Christmas flick it’s due this month.
Shane Black, who sets so many films he writes and/or directs during Christmas (I spotted a Christmas tree behind Russell Crowe in the trailer for The Nice Guys), broke out with Lethal Weapon, and defined a formula worn thin in the decades since. It’s the buddy-cop formula, and where it was created in 48 Hrs., Black reshapes it and flips the dichotomy between authority and loose cannon. This time, the straight man is an African-American family man, Roger Murtaugh, played by Danny Glover. Murtaugh is a straight-edged father and husband who’s thrives in his logical, measured existence. Enter Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), a borderline psychotic (never mind how he’s still a cop) who lost his wife and, subsequently, his mind it seems. Even though he cries himself to sleep after chewing on the barrel of his service firearm, he’s a good cop, an ace sniper in the war, and he is partnered with Murtaugh to investigate the mysterious death a young woman who was the daughter of Murtaugh’s Vietnam buddy.
The ties to Vietnam here add a layer to Lethal Weapon I never much considered when I was younger. Having both Riggs and Murtaugh serve in Vietnam creates a kinship, and here in 2015 creates this kind of odd machismo to their relationship (maybe this will become a thing with the Iraq war and heroes in the near future). It also shows how war can affect different personalities in different ways. They were both “in the shit,” but now could not be more different. Until they soon figure out they are exactly what each other needs. What makes Lethal Weapon work where 3 and 4 fail miserably (LW2 is still a great film, and a sequel on par with this original) is the personal connection to the very mechanical plot. The villains are drug lords and psychos who don’t have a problem with lighters on their forearm, but they all were borne from the hell of Vietnam, just like Riggs and Murtaugh. It’s what connects these violent men, but their wartime post-script is what separates them.
Something else elevating this first film is the way the plot unfolds without superfluous action scenes. In both the third and fourth films, Riggs and Murtaugh seem to fall into absurd shootouts and car chases that have no coherent ties to the story at hand, they just exist to dig up some laughs and cool stunts. Here, however, Shane Black’s story, directed with lean energy by Richard Donner, is utilitarian, always moving but never without reason. The kinetics are what breathe life into the film, and push the events to a weird, brilliant third act that – viewing it again – feels entirely unique to this story, stripped of any semblance of cliche nonsense.
As a buddy-cop film, Lethal Weapon abandons the static police-station setting in the first fifteen minutes of the film, and steadily continues stripping away convention. There is the “jumper scene,” created to show off Riggs’s instability, then an investigation leading to one shootout, an assassination via chopper, and then the film hums a personal tune. The plot invades Murtaugh’s home with the abduction of his daughter, and this then takes us out to the desert, and a standoff of grandiosity and, oddly, lacking any police “rules” in the film sense. These two war vets have returned to the battlefield, only now they are fighting against other American vets who’s lives have soured in the drug trade. This third act (or perhaps the second leading into the third, as there is a great deal of story left after the desert standoff) is stripped down to a bare-bones battle of survival, all the way up to the showdown between Riggs and Mister Joshua (Gary Busey) on Murtaugh’s lawn. It’s here where Lethal Weapon announces itself a sort of PTSD thriller.
And the use of Christmas here is, like Die Hard, more than background texture. It divides Riggs and Murtaugh even more before eventually bringing them together in the end. Murtaugh and his family are happy, whole, and their house is warm with Christmas decorations. Riggs, on the other hand, is alone, probably for the first time during Christmas after his wife died, understandably heightening his stress and instability. It pulls these two apart emotionally even further than they are on the surface. And when the war has been won, Riggs and Murtaugh have become closer than any two men could ever become, because they each have what the other doesn’t. And Murtaugh welcomes Riggs into his home for Christmas, theoretically adopting him into a new family. Without Christmas, there would be a certain emotional disconnect to the action inertia. It’s one of the many small details that work for Lethal Weapon, and shouldn’t be overlooked.