March 2023

Lethal Weapon (1987)

DIRECTOR: Richard Donner


Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitchell Ryan, Tom Atkins, Darlene Love, Traci Wolfe, Mary Ellen Trainor, Steve Kahan


The first of the popular Lethal Weapon series has more grittiness and less humor than its successors, but it’s a solid launching pad, only surpassed (arguably) by the second installment. In truth, the core of the movie’s (and the series’) success isn’t its police drama or action sequences, but the electric chemistry between stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. There have been many “odd couples” onscreen, but Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh set a bar to which many have aspired but few reached and almost none surpassed. This is a buddy action movie the way it’s properly done.

When a prostitute already dying from a lethal cocktail of drugs takes a dive from her skyscraper balcony, Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is brought in by a Vietnam past with the girl’s father (Tom Atkins), who makes him vow to find and punish those responsible. Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson in one of his first US roles, a noticeable Aussie accent wandering in and out throughout) is sent to partner up with Murtaugh basically because no one else wants him. Riggs is considered a “tough bastard” by his chief (Steve Kahan, cousin of director Richard Donner, who earlier cast him in Superman), although he’s warned by the psychiatrist (Mary Ellen Trainor) that Riggs’ daredevil behavior has more to do with a death wish. He lives alone, mourning the recent death of his wife in a car accident, and his thoughts often wander to suicide. On-the-edge borderline lunatic Riggs and strait-laced conventional middle-aged family man Murtaugh are a clear odd couple, but are forced to work more and more closely together as their investigation deepens and the drug dealers, led by former General Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) and his sinister henchman Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), make things personal.

Mel Gibson is in full-blown “Mad Mel” mode here, but he’s not just retreading Mad Max. Gibson’s appearances in the Mad Max series made moviegoers take notice of his charisma; here he hones his acting abilities. Riggs is probably best remembered for his humor and scenery-chomping, but it’s actually a better performance than it’s sometimes given credit for, and one of the stronger ones you’ll find in an action movie. In the later Lethal Weapon films (especially the third and fourth ), Riggs slipped into familiar breezy Mel Gibson comedy and charm, but in his first outing, on the occasions when Riggs gets a chuckle out of us, it’s an uneasy one. Danny Glover gets the more straightforward role of the “straight man”, but offsets the manic Gibson perfectly with an easy, authoritative, collected presence tinged with little character touches like insecurity about middle age and wariness of his daughter growing up. Not anything terribly complex, but small shadings that make both Riggs and Murtaugh more human and more believable than generic one-dimensional action heroes. Teaming up for the first time, Gibson and Glover slip easily into an uneasy partnership gradually giving way to trust and camaraderie that feels natural. The supporting cast, including Gary Busey as the square-jawed Joshua and Darlene Love and Traci Wolfe as Murtaugh’s supportive wife and buddingly sexual daughter, are effective, but this is Gibson and Glover’s show.

Take away the great Gibson-Glover chemistry, and the rest of Lethal Weapon isn’t as great. There’s some really, really dumb dialogue (“what did one shepherd say to the other shepherd? let’s get the flock out of here”), and the final fight scene is a bit of an anti-climax, not to mention rather unlikely (the already captured bad guy and the cop are allowed to duke it out mano-a-mano while dozens of other police just stand and watch? right). There’s plenty of humor, although the action-comedy quotient is significantly lower than in follow-ups (especially the fourth, which tipped the scales too far into goofiness), and Gibson’s Riggs is at his edgiest in his first outing. There’s a few exciting action sequences, and it’s a serviceable cop action drama with a dash of comedy. But this is a pretty clear example of a winning central pairing elevating a movie significantly above where it would have been with a lesser duo.