In retrospect, Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon (1987) is a rather depressingly lugubrious, often gratuitously violent satire loosely hinged on the redemption of its principle protagonist, Martin Riggs - an ex-special forces soldier whose life has fallen apart after the untimely death of his wife. The screenplay by Shane Black grafts its incongruous and unlikely buddy/buddy chemistry onto a narrative almost entirely driven by testosterone overload.
The action sequences staged by Bobby Bass, some actually pertaining to the central narrative, are a raging homage to men who fall into the Arnold Schwarzenegger school of acting - by that, I mean they tend to be overly drawn out, mindlessly destructive and full of thought numbing special effects that distill human tragedy to the concrete wreckage of all structural forms and vehicles.
Set just prior to the Christmas holiday, the film begins with the half-naked frame of Amanda Hunsaker (Jackie Swanson) clinging loosely to the balcony of her high rise apartment, and even more loosely to reality after having inhaled a line of cocaine for recreational purposes. The wrinkle: the narcotic has been laced with Drain-o, rendering it toxic. Amanda plummets to her death. From this rather morbidly gruesome opener, the narrative departs to the relative banality inside LAPD Det. Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) house. Roger is suffering from a mid-life crisis with the onset of his 50th birthday until he learns of Amanda's 'suicide'.
Meanwhile, in a rundown trailer near the beach, LAPD Det. Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is wallowing in yet another round of self pity, spending long tearful hours clutching his wife's picture in one hand while mercilessly attempting to blow his brains out with a revolver in the other - always with a moment of clarity that prevents him from taking his own life. Regarded as a loose cannon by his superiors, Riggs is assigned to Murtaugh's unit - a move that is destined to pit these unlikely partners against one another.
At the behest of Amanda's grieving father, Michael (Tom Atkins), who also happens to be Roger's old war buddy and a man hiding a deep, dark secret, Martin and Roger begin their investigation into Amanda's homicide by questioning her pimp. Unfortunately, the pimp is killed in the confrontation with Roger developing a respect for Martin after he saves his life during the showdown.
United in their cause, Martin and Roger next arrive at the home of Dixie (Lycia Naff) - a prostitute whose home is leveled by a cataclysmic explosion seconds before they arrive. Seeing Martin's army tattoo, a neighborhood child informs him of the arrival of another man to Dixie's home earlier that day, and, in the resulting investigation and recovery of a mercury switch used to blow up Dixie's house, Martin realizes that the 'accident' was actually a professional hit put out by ex-army intelligence.
Confronted with their findings, Michael confesses to Martin and Roger that he was laundering money for a heroin-smuggling operation masterminded by Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) and a shadowy figure known only as Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey). Amanda's murder was a way to retain Michael's silence. Unfortunately for Michael, his time has indeed run out. He is shot by Joshua from a helicopter.
From here, the plot only grows more sinister and ominous with Joshua and McAllister turning their assassin's intent on Martin whom they mistakenly believe they have killed, though he is wearing a bulletproof vest and has survived. Kidnapping Roger's daughter, Rianne (Tracy Wolfe), Joshua and McAllister next force an exchange with Roger whom they also plan to kill, but not before they torture him to learn how much of their operation he knows about. Refusing to tell his assailants anything, Roger is repeatedly brutalized - his wounds rubbed in salt. Meanwhile, Martin is discovered to be alive, captured and given several rounds of electro-shock before managing to free himself and rescue both Roger and Rianne.
In a harrowing escape, McAllister's car is detonated by a hand grenade, with Joshua heading to the Murtaugh family home to exact his final revenge against Roger for fowling their perfect plan. Instead, Joshua is apprehended by an army of L.A.'s finest. In a page that might have been scripted for the latest UFC bout, Martin and Joshua endure a demented battle of wills on Rogers front lawn, with both men driven to the brink of mental and physical destruction. Faking defeat, Joshua gains access to a police officer's pistol. But Roger and Martin are faster on the draw, killing Joshua in unison and thereby cementing their professional partnership and personal friendship.
In the last few moments of the film, a patched together Martin arrives on Rogers doorstep Christmas Eve to give him the bullet he intended to use on himself, a symbolic token of thanks for their friendship, adding that he believes Rianne has developed a crush on him as a result of his heroics. "Touch her and you're dead!" Roger jokingly replies, as the two men go into Roger's house to spend the holidays together.
Lethal Weapon has its moments, but on the whole the film has dated badly. Mel Gibson's outrageously 'big' hair aside, the central narrative is threadbare on cohesiveness, its action sequences somehow void of relative importance to the story of two unlikely men - each facing a crisis of conscience and emotion - who awkwardly find a kindred spirit in one another. Gibson's performance is often embarrassingly second rate - a cheap knock off of his Mad Max persona. At times, he seems to be playing it straight for dangerous realism, then inexplicably veers into the realm of gross camp with badly timed, and even more poorly written comedy at his disposal.
Glover, on the other hand, remains relatively low key throughout the film, perhaps too much to be believed as a hot shot detective. Yes, there is definite and palpable chemistry between these two as the film progresses, but it very often is only glimpsed in fits and sparks, rather than incrementally growing as the narrative progresses to its inevitable conclusion. In the final analysis, Lethal Weapon is a time capsule of 1980s film making at its most conventional.
Warner Home Video's Blu-Ray easily improves on its standard DVD incarnation. Color fidelity as well as fine detail take a quantum leap forward on the Blu-Ray. A rich, warm and fully saturated palette of hues is married to an extraordinary amount of minute detailing in everything from flesh tones to density of clothing and background information. This is one fine visual presentation, only occasionally marred by several softly rendered sequences that are probably more inherent of flaws in the original cinematography than they are of Blu-Ray mastering. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and powerfully expressed across all speakers. Extras boil down to two brief featurettes imported directly from the original DVD presentation.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)