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'Lethal Weapon' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 06, 1987

"Lethal Weapon" opens with a shot of Mel Gibson in his birthday suit and just gets better. Likewise we meet costar Danny Glover in the bathtub, fêted by his family on his 50th birthday. This endearing double exposure introduces us to the vulnerabilities of these superduper heroes, an odd couple of cops who mature into friends as they quell crime.

You probably think you know the plot by heart, but just when you think you've got it figured, you're bushwhacked by an unexpected twist. It wouldn't matter even if you had seen it a thousand times -- Gibson and Glover create a crack cop team every bit as entertaining as Nolte and Murphy in "48 Hrs.," but twice as believable.

Otherwise, this is a pistol-packing, snap-crackling blow-out by director Richard ("Superman") Donner, who sets a pace here that makes a speeding bullet look like a lazy hound on a hot day. But for all the shootouts and chases, what distinguishes "Lethal Weapon" is depth. This is a thinking-man's thriller that gives its heroes the right to cry. Not to sniffle or whine, mind you, but break down -- and break your heart. Real Men, redefined.

Gibson plays Martin Riggs, a martial artist and registered "lethal weapon" of the title with a healthy sense of black humor. He is depressed by the recent death of his wife, and police psychiatrists worry that he's on the edge, a suicidal hot dog. Transferred to the homicide squad, Riggs is partnered with Glover's Roger Murtaugh, a devoted family man. Cosby meets Commando.

Murtaugh is a veteran detective with an impeccable record, playing it safe as he begins to lose faith in himself as he enters his fifth decade. He is convinced that Riggs is going to kill them both, and refuses to let him drive, coughing irritably as the chain-smoking 30-year-old lights up.

Eventually, the two detectives develop mutual respect and then rapport as they puzzle over a prostitute's suicide, finally linking her death to a narcotics network tied to the Vietnam War, where both served. Gary Busey, as a vile henchman, proves a worthy opponent for the ever more daring duo.

Glover and Gibson click. They've got the squad-car camaraderie of Cagney and Lacey, and a tough-talking comic chemistry that's a hybrid of Dirty Harry, the Barney Miller boys and the Keystone Cops.

For Glover, it's a richly deserved starring role, after an outstanding supporting performance in "Places in the Heart" and more recently as "The Color Purple's" Mister. And Gibson, with his heavy-metal haircut and madman's eyes, is not merely Max-imizing here. He's taking a larger-than-life hero down to size, and imbuing this heartbroken hardacre with smarts and heart.

Another recent UCLA grad, Shane Black, hits with this .44-magnum screenplay, complete with the requisite rogue's repartee. Life and death, good and evil, cops and robbers, all the epic standbys make for "Lethal Weapon's" ostensible themes. But Donner and Black, not unwittingly, are remaking the American macho ideal.

As one of Murdaugh's men jokes: "I cried in bed last night."

"Were you alone?" asks Murdaugh.

"Yeah, why did you think I was crying?"

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