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'Lethal Weapon IV': Explosions, Yes; Plot, No

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 1998

  Movie Critic

Lethal Weapon IV
Danny Glover and Mel Gibson star in "Lethal Weapon IV." (Warner Bros.)

Richard Donner
Mel Gibson;
Danny Glover;
Joe Pesci;
Rene Russo;
Chris Rock;
Jet Li;
Darlene Love;
Traci Wolfe
Running Time:
2 hours, 5 minutes
Gratuitous violence
Among the SIG-Sauers and AK-47s and Colts and Berettas and Smith & Wessons that decorate "Lethal Weapon IV," the most lethal weapon of all turns out to be the script.

This curious document must have been written on one side of a postcard using a very fat red crayon. That's about the amount of story the movie contains, and I know it was a fat crayon because there are four people listed in the writing and story credits and it must have taken all of them to maneuver it through those complicated zig-zaggy letters like "w" and "x."

The rest is gratuitous violence and stunts, some quite spectacular, all resolutely meaningless. There's also a little comic banter and a lot of redundancy. Did we really need both Chris Rock and Joe Pesci? I mean, isn't one funnyman enough, especially with the bickering Bickersons of Law Enforcement, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, hogging the camera in endless yammering love spats? And how many car chases can one movie hold?

All the regulars are here. The movie really should have been called "Lethal Weapon: The Reunion." Besides Pesci, Rene Russo reprises from III. Gibson's Beretta and Glover's Smith are of course on hand, or should I say, in hand.

Does anybody remember the first film? That was an actual movie, until it went nuts at the end, and the lethal weapon of the title was Gibson's melancholy mind. He was a devastated, self-loathing Vietnam vet hellbent on spectacular self-extinction; memories of America's least favorite war filled the film, giving it an almost tragic dignity. Its arc was redemptive. It watched as the crippled loner white man was healed by the healthy black family man. It was as full of love as it was of guns, and it was very full of guns.

Four profitable editions down the line, that's all gone, to be replaced by nothing. The movie has no subtext at all, unless it's something like "orange propane explosions are really cool!" Maybe they are, but . . . every 3 minutes and 21 seconds?

When the movie finally gets started, about an hour or so in, it seems to be about a scam by which the Chinese triads are buying the freedom of imprisoned elders from corrupt Chinese generals with counterfeit yen. Why, you ask, as nobody connected with the production ever did, would such a thing take place on American soil, not Chinese? Possibly the movie explains it, possibly it doesn't; who could tell? The real reason, however, is that if it took place in China there'd be no excuse for Gibson and Glover to launch a car from the Ventura Freeway, plunge it through a drafting office full of blueprints, people and desks, re-launch it on the other side, and have it land on the Santa Monica Freeway. Is this worth seeing? If you like breakage, the answer is a big yes.

Glover's Murtaugh and Gibson's Riggs literally get in the way of the Chinese caper when their fishing boat is sunk by a tramp freighter smuggling in illegals in a gambit so tertiary to the central plot that it's hardly there at all. Riggs sinks the freighter with his pistol while Murtaugh shanghais the members of one alien family and grants them his own private asylum, because he's moved by the "slavery" aspects of their plights (the illegals are indentured to Chinese gangsters for $35,000 worth of hard labor). Eventually the immigrant family is re-acquired by the triad boys to use as leverage to get an engraver to complete the counterfeit job.

Everything else is riffs and racism. The director, Richard Donner, was so proud of his anti-apartheid stand that he did a whole movie about it ("Lethal Weapon II"), and he festoons this picture with anti-NRA and anti-assault rifle messages (even though he's probably sold more Berettas to the American public than Beretta's actual ad agency). But he seems to regard Asians as amusing li'l Oriental fellers, with buck teeth and funny accents. He even uses the old "flied lice" gag! Some liberal!

The movie's one grace note is sounded by its villain, played by the Hong Kong action star Jet Li. This guy has martial arts moves that are so dynamic one can hardly believe them, some twisty scissors kick action that makes him seem like he's from another dimension, or at least another form of gravity. When he lets loose, the movie becomes, however so briefly, fascinating, even awesome. It's the power, instantly recognizable, of the authentic over the artificial.

As for Gibson and Glover, both remain likable but nothing they do could be confused with acting. Alice and Ralph Kramden sniped at each other more funnily 40 years ago than these two old wheezers.

"Lethal Weapon IV" is also endless. You know the thing where you think it's over and you start to get up, and suddenly a whole new scene begins and your heart sinks? It does this twice. Twice! This is some kind of weirdness: A movie that almost forgets to start almost forgets to end.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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