Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Lethal Weapon – following the personal and professional lives of aging and put-upon Los Angeles homicide detective Roger Murtaugh and his loose-cannon partner Martin Riggs. The franchise comprises four feature films, from 1987-1998.
The Installment: Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
Murtaugh and Riggs are as we last saw them — Riggs isn’t suicidal anymore but boy is he sure still allsortsa kooky and I-play-by-MY-rules-ish, Murtaugh is still too old for shit, and the two men are besties. The film opens with a car chase that leads to the discovery of $1 million in illegal gold Krugerrands. Being detectives, our boys deduce that if Krugerrands are South African currency than maybe South Africans are involved. This leads them to Arjen Rudd (Joss Ackland), the minister of affairs for the South African Consulate, who is totally guilty, but is also totally immune to the Los Angeles legal system because he has diplomatic immunity. Good thing Riggs is a terrible cop, as far as obeying the law is concerned, because he doesn’t let that diplomatic immunity thing stop him from harassing Rudd and his goons. In an attempt to steer Riggs and Murtaugh away from trouble, Captain Murphy (Steve Kahan) assigns the guys to protect a federal witness named Leo Getz (Joe Pesci), a hyperactive money-launder who decided to turn whistle blower. Riggs also courts Rudd’s secretary, Rika Van Den Haas (Patsy Kensit), in an attempt to, uh, I guess just bang her. She is hot. Then she dies. Then a house falls over. Surf board to the face! They fuck you at the drive-thru! Roll credits.
Lethal Weapon 2 is a textbook ‘redo’ sequel, following the time-honored formula of: just do the same thing again, but add a new character to spice things up. Simply laid out on paper the movie is a disaster, a mine field of crap creative decisions and half-baked subplots. The only reason the movie works at all is, once again, Gibson and Glover’s chemistry as Riggs and Murtaugh. And judging from this movie it would seem that their chemistry is an unfuckupable recipe. Cause despite its glaring – hell, blinding – flaws, LW2 is a blast.
We already waxed about the Gibson/Glover juice last time, and the same still holds true. So moving on…
Richard Donner flexes his muscles hard on this movie. From solely a directing standpoint, LW2 is superior to the first film. It is slicker, more assured, and has a better scene-to-scene flow. We lose some of the rough charm the first film had in the process, but considering that LW2 has a much lighter tone than the original, the change fits. And Donner needed to bring his A-game now that Shane Black is out of the picture (he left over disagreements on the film’s tone; Black wanted it darker; notably he wanted to kill Riggs at the end, which is just a dumb idea in my book). Jeffrey Boam isn’t Shane Black, but at the end of the day it hardly matters. Boam can’t quite match Black’s banter, but he comes close enough for Gibson, Glover and Donner to kick things into the goal.
Joss Ackland. I complained last time about how unmemorable Mitchell Ryan was as our topdog villain, General McCallister. Joss Ackland, playing South African superdick Arjen Rudd, is impossible to forget. Even though the character of Rudd is completely preposterous and two-dimensional as presented, Ackland grounds the hell out of him with his Shakespearean presence. Ackland has to register as one of cinema’s Top 10 best glowerers. The man has a fierce scowl, and a well-deep voice that sounds particularly entertaining being channeled through Rudd’s jaunty South African accent, as Ackland punctuates half his lines with a faux-pleasant “hey” at the end. “Only a few bumps and bruises, hey?” I dare you to walk away from the film without trying to imitate the way he smugly delivers “Diplomatic immunity” to Murtaugh at the end. Bottom line is, Arjen Rudd is a terrible character. But Ackland tricks you into thinking otherwise. At least mostly.
Ditto for Joe Pesci and the potentially movie-ruining role of Leo Getz. I mean, Jesus, is Leo a terrible idea for a Lethal Weapon central character; the only idea worse than giving Murtaugh and Riggs an effeminate motor-mouthed sidekick is giving them a wise-cracking little kid sidekick. Leo should have sunk this ship like an iceberg. The character offers nothing to the forward movement of the story. He serves no purpose other than comic relief, which Riggs and Murtaugh don’t need, as they’re their own comic relief — they’re a comedy duo! And worse, Leo brings out weird bullying characteristics in our two heroes, who seem to hate Leo from the second they see him. They physically abuse him, verbally abuse him, frankly they seem like awful and mean human beings whenever Leo is around. But Pesci makes it all funny and harmless. His ad-libbed “okay okay” catchphrase is oddly effective. And his famous “they fuck you at the drive-thru” routine is now one of the best remembered moments of the franchise, and of Pesci’s great career. Did you remember that the drive-thru in question is at a Subway? I’ve never seen a Subway drive-thru in my life. But I also imagine Burger King and McDonald’s weren’t falling all over themselves to have their drive-thru competency become the subject of one of cinema’s most beloved tirades.
Speaking of famous bits from this franchise: the toilet bomb sequence also ranks very high on that list, if not right at #1. And it is easily the highlight of the film. Not only is it just great dumb action movie over-the-top fun, but surprisingly it has the film’s most human moment. I’m going to complain in the next section about a shift in the Riggs/Murtaugh relationship that I don’t like, but this scene does a lot to undo that. Seeing Riggs worried about Murtaugh, refusing to leave his side when the bomb squad asks him to — that’s good shit. And the moment when Murtaugh is about to tell Riggs that he loves him, and Riggs just says “I know” before Murtaugh has even uttered a word. That’s also good shit. The more these two men believably care about one another, the better the movie works. The ending of LW2 shouldn’t work at all, with Riggs and Murtaugh telling each other jokes while Riggs lays riddled with bullets and near death. But with these characters, and Gibson and Glover, it plays wonderfully. You realize, wait, that is exactly how this movie should end.
Though it could not be hackier set-up and pay-off, the schtick with Riggs being able to dislocate his shoulder at will, and then painfully jam it back in place, plays so well into Mel Gibson’s wheelhouse that it proves quite successful in the film — first as a wacky gag, when Riggs wins money in an office bet by getting out of a straight jacket (a nice nod to his insane persona from the first film), and then dramatically later in the film when he must use this ability to free himself from a swimmin’-with-the-fishes attempt on his life.
This movie is silly as hell compared to the first film; something Richard Donner archly signals to us during the film’s opening seconds when the Looney Tunes theme song flits in and out of the film’s score, before he throws us into the middle of a wacky car chase — in stark contrast to the eerie and disturbing drug-fueled suicide scene that opened Lethal Weapon. Riggs and Murtaugh are sillier now. Leo is only silly. The film’s biggest running gag is about Murtaugh’s daughter appearing in a condom ad. But the silliest element of all has to be Arjen Rudd’s henchman, Pieter Vorstedt (Derrick O’Connor), who serves as LW2‘s Mr. Joshua. O’Connor is no Busey, largely forgettable on the surface, but Vorstedt makes for an interesting follow-up to Joshua. Mr. Joshua didn’t seem to grasp the concept of stealth, using helicopters for his hitman duties and shooting machine guns from cars. Vorstedt is the opposite. He doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of just shooting someone he wants dead, instead subscribing to a Wile E. Coyote method of assassination. Why walk up to Murtaugh and shoot him in the face, when you can plant a bomb on his toilet, complete with a note written to Murtaugh on the toilet paper? I mean, the number of ways that could go wrong are pretty high. What if Murtaugh took a shit at the office that day? Vorstedt really likes planting bombs. On diving boards. At poker games. He also likes tossing people alive into the ocean to drown. Though, oddly – and I guess this is just a trademark of the franchise – even Vorstedt attempts the ol’ sneak-up-on-you-in-a-helicopter murder, which unsurprisingly fails when Riggs hears the chopper approaching.
Though current blockbusters still feature plenty of money wasting, watching Riggs knock a huge Hollywood Hills-style mansion (the kind that are precariously perched upon support stilts) down a cliff, I couldn’t help but think, “They just don’t do stuff like this in action movies anymore.” It is so unnecessary to the story and so expensive seeming. Fabulous.
What Doesn’t Work:
There is so much shamelessly wrong with this movie, staring you right in the goddamn face, practically taunting you to let it ruin the film, that it is no wonder Shane Black walked away from the project. He just didn’t have Joel Silver’s blind faith that the cast would wash away all of the scripts’ sins. And LW2 has quite a lot to confess.
Patsy Kensit, as Rika Van Den Haas, is strangely superfluous. Kensit’s hubba-hubba factor is off the charts, plus we want Riggs to get over his wife eventually, so it isn’t that troublesome to toss in a sexy lady who serves no huge purpose. What is strange is just how easily Rika could have been tied into the narrative. Why does Riggs ask out Rika, Arjen Rudd’s secretary? Cause she’s hot. End of story. But Riggs wants to get access to Rudd, to dig up dirt on the guy, right? So, maybe I’m crazy, but wouldn’t seducing his secretary be a pretty solid way to accomplish that? Get Rika to give him private files or whathaveyou. Then, you know, Riggs could realize he’s really falling for her, and also realize it was entirely his fault that Arjen Rudd killed her, because Rudd would be killing her for betraying him. Instead of Vorstedt killing Rika largely just to punish Riggs for meddling. Probably half a page of dialogue would’ve been required to make this alteration too.
Gibson and Glover are still the same, which is the important part, but Riggs and Murtaugh aren’t. Murtaugh was the soul of Lethal Weapon. We were never sure exactly where Riggs’ death wish ended and where his heroism began. Gibson was the hot commodity, but Riggs didn’t have the film’s focus — almost all the events were filtered through Murtaugh. Not anymore. Now Riggs is far and away the hero, and Murtaugh has become his shit-on loser buddy, constantly emasculated and the butt of every joke. That isn’t a huge step down from the first film, but Riggs’ attitude towards Murtaugh is. It seems as though Riggs has zero respect for his partner. The film opens with Murtaugh driving his wife’s new station wagon in a police chase. We get jokes about how Mrs. Murtaugh will “kill” him if he damages it, even seeing the cops back at the station acknowledging that Murtaugh is a pussy and won’t let his wife’s car get hurt. Then, of course, Riggs takes the wheel and almost intentionally ruins the car, making snarky comments to Murtaugh underlining that he thinks it is all hilarious, like a sociopath. And Murtaugh just keeps getting shit on for the whole film. The toilet scene is great, but let’s not forget its context in this film. This scene doesn’t happen to Riggs. Riggs doesn’t get caught taking a shit on a bomb. No, Riggs gets to bang Patsy Kensit and do every single other cool thing in the movie. Murtaugh has been demoted from equal co-hero to office laughingstock. Where this unevenness is most apparent is in the Apartheid elements…
Ignoring the fact that it is now awkward to hear Mel Gibson insulting someone by calling them an Aryan and getting all worked up over racism, I like the Apartheid propaganda in the film. It is silly to make South Africans the super villains of your huge action blockbuster, especially when it is very obviously all a political statement by Richard Donner, but whatever, fuck 1980’s South Africa. It’s not like they didn’t deserve some mainstream villainization (the Russians couldn’t always be the international white bad guys). And yes, LW2 doesn’t seem to understand how diplomatic immunity works, whatsoever, but neither does the average person, so who cares. What bugged me about the Apartheid commentary was that it entirely focused on Riggs; he is the racially distressed one. Now, I’m not saying that because Murtaugh is black he needed to handle everything, but he literally gets nothing. For a guy who had an Apartheid poster in his kitchen in Lethal Weapon, Murtaugh frankly doesn’t seem all that upset with the South Africans’ racism. Arjen Rudd is Riggs’ nemesis, not Murtaugh’s. Murtaugh tells Riggs to calm down when Riggs is getting worked up about these racists; Riggs only a step away from saying, “You just can’t understand Rog’.” In fact, the one and only time Murtaugh gets to play in the racism field is when he is acting like he is offended by the South Africans’ racism to create a distraction for Riggs, so Riggs can go fuck with Rudd.
Rudd and Vorstedt are basically redressed versions of General McCallister and Mr. Joshua. In the first film McCallister was Murtaugh’s foe, and Mr. Joshua was Riggs’. Now, in LW2 Riggs gets two nemesis. Rudd and Vorstedt. And Vorstedt, after initially being fun for his Wile E. Coyote shenanigans, winds up being the single stupidest and most aggravating thing in LW2, from a franchise mythology perspective. Remember how Riggs’ wife died in a car crash? Wrong. Vorstedt killed her. Wait – you might ask for clarification – this South African guy from the sequel was responsible for the death of Riggs’ wife, which happened before the first movie even began? Yup. This guy. Killed Riggs’ wife. Why? Oh, cause apparently Riggs was “getting too close” to their shady dealings; dealing, by the way, that are never really explained to us, as far as what precisely their criminal enterprise is — money laundering I guess. This may very well be the most unnecessary bit of franchise retconning I can think of. The degree to which this is unnecessary is staggering. I bet 95% of you reading this, who have potentially seen the film at least twice, don’t even fucking remember it. Cause it is that pointless. Vorstedt kills Patsy Kensit, Riggs’ new love. Why did he need to kill Riggs’ wife too? I. Just. Don’t. Understand. And this is coming from a guy who thought it was an acceptable mythology alteration to have the Joker be responsible for killing Bruce Wayne’s parents in Tim Burton’s Batman. This, though, is just… I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
Body Count: 29
Best Kill: When Det. Shapiro (Jenette Goldstein) gets assassinated by a bomb placed on her swimming pool diving board, that is – of course – triggered by bouncing. Oh, Vorstedt, you rascal.
Best Line: To the South Africans.
Riggs: Cause if you stick around here, I’m gonna fuck your ass.
Corniest Line: After killing two men with a nail gun.
Murtaugh: Nailed ‘em both.
Worst Line: Riggs: We’re back, we’re bad, you’re black, I’m mad.
Riggs Worst Cop Moment: Knocking over an entire house while not only the Federal witness he has been assigned to protect is inside, but his own partner too. He could have at least waited for Murtaugh to give him some sort of signal. It also isn’t a great cop moment when you tell someone “I’m not a cop tonight” as you prepare to go kill tons of people.
How Often Murtaugh Is Too Old For This Shit: 1
Richard Donner’s Political Propaganda: 1) Anti-Apartheid is part of the overall story. 2) the Murtaugh family is boycotting tuna because of dolphin-killing netting practices. 3) Rianne stars in a condom commercial, during an era when TV ads for condoms were very controversial.
Should There Be a Sequel: Yup.
Up Next: Lethal Weapon 3