by D.W. Lundberg

Saturday, October 22, 2011


In almost every movie romance, there's a thing called the "meet cute," in which a boy and a girl are brought together in some deliberate comic fashion - often the result of an awkward social mishap or hilarious misunderstanding. This is, of course, just their first step toward falling in love: both characters usually come from opposite sides of the tracks, and will spend the rest of the plot bickering and flirting and generally getting on each other's nerves – until finally, at the end, they realize they are Made For Each Other.

Some noteworthy examples of this. In Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), runaway heiress Claudette Colbert meets down-on-his-luck reporter Clark Gable while arguing over a seat on a bus. In Disney's One Hundred And One Dalmatians (1969), Pongo the dog "arranges" a meeting between humans Roger and Anita at the park (they argue for about two seconds before falling into a pond together). In Grease (1978), John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John's "meet cute" doesn't actually occur on screen, but is recounted during a musical number instead ("She swam by me, she got a cramp
" / "He went by me, got my suit damp"). And in 1993's Sleepless In Seattle, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan don't officially "meet cute" until movie's end – on top of the Empire State Building, no less, on Valentine's Day.

When it comes to the Buddy Film – which, you will recall, follows the same basic plot structure as the Romantic Comedy, minus the romance – the concept of "meet cute" still applies. Oh, the end result may turn out different, but the function of it is the same: to unite two characters with conflicting personalities in some fateful, memorable way, thus setting them at odds with each other for the rest of the movie. (This is otherwise known as "conflict.")

The "meet cute" in Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon (1987) comes about 20 minutes into the movie. It's Christmas in L.A., and we've already met LAPD Detective Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), a 50-year-old father of three who's battling the onset of a crippling mid-life crisis. His wife, his kids, even his pals at Homicide have been chiding him about his age, and now, as he stands in his office discussing the facts of his latest case (the supposed suicide of a drug addict and sometime prostitute who jumped from her posh high-rise apartment), you can practically feel the world resting on Roger's shoulders. He's also been assigned a new partner today, and just as we're processing this, Roger spots a disheveled man in a baseball cap being led into the squad room.

This is Sergeant Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), and we've met him before, too – first at an undercover drug bust where he almost gets himself killed, and later at home, with a picture of his dead wife in his lap and a gun in his mouth. Riggs' reckless/ suicidal behavior has earned him a transfer to Homicide, where a more seasoned detective will be able to keep an eye on him. To Roger, though, Riggs looks more like a homeless person – unshaven, dressed in his gnarly jacket and cowboy boots, eyes darting nervously about the room. Roger watches, as suddenly, Riggs reaches behind his back and pulls out his gun. And perhaps as a knee-jerk reaction to the events of the day, Roger springs into action. Shouts a warning and charges at Riggs. Riggs sees him coming and reacts, flipping the older man over his shoulder and pinning him to the floor with lightning speed. As Roger lies on his back, dazed, another detective informs him, helpfully: "Rog, meet your new partner."

And so our dynamic is set for the rest of the movie: Riggs, the irascible wild card, partnered with responsible family man Murtaugh. They'll bicker, they'll fight, they'll save each other's lives on more than one occasion, and by the end, they'll turn out to be best pals – lifelong platonic partners, if you will. It's a match made in box office heaven.

Actually, three components help Lethal Weapon stand proud and apart from its "buddy cop" brethren: Richard Donner's energetic direction, the script by (then) 23-year-old Shane Black, and the chemistry between its two stars. After a string of megahits including The Omen (1976), Superman: The Movie (1978), and The Goonies (1985), Donner brings his singular verve to Weapon, and keeps the plot rolling along at a frantic, crackerjack pace, so that you're hardly aware of the genre trappings on display. The same goes for Black's quippy, propulsive dialogue, which helps to offset the movie's darker edges. ("Torture, kidnap[ping], drugs, suicides," said Mel Gibson in a recent interview. "And yet it was hilarious!")

As for Gibson and Glover, it's strange to think that neither actor was particularly well-known to audiences at the time of the movie's release. Glover had earned critical acclaim for supporting roles in Places In The Heart and The Color Purple; Gibson had starred in Gallipoli and The Year Of Living Dangerously, and gained a cult following from George Miller's Mad Max trilogy. For their Lethal screen tests, Gibson and Glover got along so well that Donner practically cast them on the spot, and what resulted not only turned the actors into household names, it kicked off a legacy that other "buddy cop" comedies could only aspire to.

There's an urgency to the action, a sweetness to the movie's quieter moments (Murtaugh's wife and children feel like actual people, rather than sitcom stereotypes), and I think you really buy into the idea that our protagonists need each other, care for each other, and balance each other out. Mel and Danny are so much fun, it's almost tempting to forgive the inanities of the series' later installments. Almost. Still, at a combined gross of $900 million, it's hard to dispute the franchise's viability at the box office.

And to think it all started with a "meet cute" - one man mistaking another for a degenerate. Funny how life works itself out sometimes.


The Original: Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987)

Cast: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitchell Ryan, Tom Atkins, Darlene Love

Plot: Two L.A. police detectives – one a loose cannon reeling from the death of his wife, the other a responsible family man – stumble onto a drug smuggling operation.

How It Set The Tone: The start of a beautiful friendship. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover have such an easy rapport, and the script by first-timer Shane Black gives them so many choice one-liners to work with, it's easy to see why audiences fell head over heels for them in the first place. They're the quintessential buddy cops: Riggs' reckless impulsiveness brings the buttoned-down Murtaugh out of his shell, and vice versa - Murtaugh's
by-the- book traditional values ground Riggs, and give him something to live for. Director Richard Donner keeps the action coming at a breakneck pace, and the villains (including Gary Busey as Gibson's dark double) are menacing and memorable.

Room For Improvement: Even for an 80's picture, this is pretty hard-edged stuff: the opening sequence, scored to Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock," starts with a half-naked woman who sniffs a line of coke off a mirrored table and then promptly jumps to her death. Merry Christmas! Also, the plot could have used an extra twist or two; even I lose track of how it all ties together, probably because my brain thinks there's more going on than there actually is. Still, this is Gibson and Glover's show, and they walk away with the movie, bruised, battered and ready for their next adventure. (DVD alert: The 117-minute director's cut cheats by adding a trio of superfluous introductory scenes to the movie's first act. You're better off finding the original 110-minute version, which doesn't feel the need to repeat itself.)

Grade: B+

Sequel: Lethal Weapon 2 (Richard Donner, 1989)

Returning Cast: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Darlene Love

New Cast: Joe Pesci, Joss Ackland, Derrick O'Connor, Patsy Kensit

Plot: Two cops, while on assignment to protect a federal witness, battle a group of South African drug smugglers hiding behind diplomatic immunity.

How It Compares: A textbook example of how to pull off a successful sequel: Give your audience the thrills they expect, send your protagonists off on new adventures with only occasional references to the original, and toss new characters into the mix, for, you know, variety. The script by Jeffery Boam (with co-story credit from Shane Black and Warren Murphy) is a natural progression of the first movie: Riggs has lost his suicidal streak but none of his manic playfulness, Murtaugh is still the exasperated straight-man to Riggs' antics, and the movie is lighter and friskier for all that. Some of this is silly (an early gag with Riggs in a strait-jacket gets an obvious pay off later), but the set pieces are terrific, including a now- classic bomb-under-the-toilet sequence, and a late- in-the-game twist that forces Gibson's character to revert to his lethal, destructive self. The sequel's real stroke of genius, though, is Joe Pesci's lovable pipsqueak Leo Getz, whose loud- mouthed line delivery is the funniest thing in the movie.

Grade: B+

Sequel: Lethal Weapon 3 (Richard Donner, 1992)

Returning Cast: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Darlene Love

New Cast: Rene Russo, Stuart Wilson

Plot: Two police detectives run afoul of a crooked cop turned illegal arms dealer.

How It Compares: A textbook example of how not to pull off a successful sequel: the jokes are lazy, the writing is tired, and by now it feels like the entire cast and crew have settled into formula, confident that we'll lap up anything they throw at us. (They were right: LW3 scored $144.7 million in U.S. theaters, just $3 million shy of LW2's box office take.) The plot, this time, centers around Murtaugh's impending retirement (yeah, right), and a sexy newcomer (Rene Russo) who turns out to be Riggs' equal in more ways than one. Yet all of that goodwill is stunted by the movie's lame-brained insistence on recalling the series' past events - even Joe Pesci's return as the diminutive Leo Getz is a constant reminder of that, since he's mostly on hand for redundant comic relief. The whole movie is redundant - an easy-enough way to pass a couple of hours, but lacking the freshness of everything that's come before it.

Grade: C+

Sequel: Lethal Weapon 4 (Richard Donner, 1998)

Returning Cast: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Rene Russo, Darlene Love

New Cast: Chris Rock, Jet Li

Plot: On the verge of fatherhood (and grandfather- hood, respectively), LAPD Detectives Riggs and Murtaugh do battle with vicious Chinese Triads.

How It Compares: The Lethal Weapon series finally descends into parody, with so many scenes of forced action and comedy, it plays like an outtake reel from the first three movies. The whole thing practically reeks of desperation, from its cops- versus-flamethrowered-vigilante opening sequence, to the "jokes" about pregnancy and Chinese immigrants (don't ask), to its bare-bones idea for a plot, which exists merely as an excuse to show off Jet Li's lightning-quick karate moves. Chris Rock also joins the cast, and like everything else in the movie, the narrative simply halts in its tracks to let him do his thing; I counted at least three times when he's allowed to break into his patented stand-up routine, while everyone else just sits there, waiting for him to shut up. As for Gibson and Glover, they're both past the point of "getting too old for this s---." This isn't Lethal Weapon any more. It's more like Grumpy Old Men.

Grade: D

More To Come?: For years now, there's been talk of getting a fifth Lethal Weapon off the ground. Though Gibson, Glover and Donner have all shown disinterest in the project, Entertainment Weekly reported on January 20, 2011, that writer Will Beall had been hired to pen a reboot of the franchise. Joy.


Part 2 of my "Buddy Cop" retrospective. Hungry for more Franchise Face-Offs? No problem! Click here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

No comments:

Post a Comment