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‘Lethal Weapon’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 06, 1987

"Lethal Weapon" is a vivid, visceral reminder of just how exciting an action film can be. It demonstrates how that much-abused genre, the police procedural, can be brought to life by a good director (Richard Donner) and a strong cast, headed in this case by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

Our first exposure to Detective Martin Riggs (Gibson) is a bit of dorsal nudity, and after a bit of kamikaze undercover work, he's back in his beer-bottle-strewn trailer, exploring a personal death wish with a service revolver jammed halfway down his throat. Not your average cop, obviously. It turns out that Riggs is battling severe depression after his wife's death in an auto accident, and because the Vietnam vet and ex-Special Forces sniper is a genuinely registered "lethal weapon" (the martial marshal, as it were), it's little wonder that his fellow officers don't want to be around to set his hair trigger off.

Across town, veteran Roger Murtaugh (Glover) is celebrating his 50th birthday by letting us see what "The Cosby Show" might look like if the head Huxtable were a cop instead of a doctor -- nice house in a nice neighborhood, nice family and, of course, a gorgeous daughter. His present from the department: a new partner, Riggs. They are the odd couple, then -- insider/outsider, the homicide detective and the suicidal detective. Onehas everything to live for, the other nothing to live for, yet they must share all risks. Part of the film's drama, and of its sly comedic undercurrent, has to do with their reaching a rapprochement on this life- and-death dilemma.

An apparent suicide kicks off "Lethal Weapon" -- a pretty hooker jumps off a penthouse balcony -- and Riggs and Murtaugh are sent to investigate. When it turns out that she's the daughter of one of Riggs' war buddies and that she was probably murdered, the detectives start digging a little deeper. Like the Vietnam war itself, things slowly escalate as truths become known, overseas alliances turn into stateside oppositions and the demon drug heroin becomes the agent of both crime and punishment. A lot of ghosts come back to haunt this film, including a slimmed-down Gary Busey in his first bad-guy role as the ruthless albino killer Joshua.

Though some of the plot threads are a little too loose, Donner keeps things moving along at such a scintillating pace that you'll hardly notice. This is the director's first action film, but there's none of the idiot's delight in violence that surrounds the muscle-bound police films of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Eastwood. Donner knows how to keep his film in motion and his actors on edge, how to advance from one reasonable climax to another. A long, graphic torture scene toward the end may be painful to watch, but the release provided by the final confrontation is genuinely cathartic.

Although Gibson's flat American accent is a little disconcerting (he was born here, but moved to Australia at 12), he does bring some of his original Mad Max menace to the role. Constantly at flash point, he's hardly the kind of partner anyone would want ("You ever met anybody you didn't kill?" Murtaugh wonders), but his vulnerability is a blast of fresh air aimed at macho stereotypes.

With his hard-nosed portrayal of Murtaugh, Glover manages to avoid becoming Hollywood's black Everyman. It's a neat twist on his bad-cop role in "Witness," and the rapport between these two fine actors seems genuine, thanks in no small part to writer Shane Black's convincing dialogue. After watching Gibson and Glover grow accustomed to each other, develop trust and confidence in each other and charge bullheadedly into dangerous situations, you can't help but hope there's a "Lethal Weapon II." It would be one of the few times a sequel would make sense and dollars.

"Lethal Weapon" is rated R and contains graphic violence and language, and nudity.

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