This positively absurd jumble of a third sequel entitled Lethal Weapon 4 sets the unpleasant tone accordingly by opening with a white cop humiliating and endangering his black partner solely for his own amusement, right after the two melodramatically engage in surprise pregnancy reveals for each other while hiding behind their car from a man in body armor assaulting downtown Los Angeles with a flamethrower and assault rifle. The undeniably iconic pair of Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh were standard-bearers for the buddy-cop action genre for the decade their series ran for and beyond, and the dark, grounded, psychological quality of the original helps it to at least partly continue to hold up, but this film from the jump undermined its notion of a central friendship by simply going too far with what could possibly be acceptable treatment or behavior in a series’ world that had previously presented and continues to inconsistently present itself as something resembling reality.1
In the process the audience begins its flirtation with the film’s muddled but nonetheless ugly ideology, which actively hinges on its fence-sitting between relative reality and a cartoon world. This familiar duo navigates their ages and changes in their lives2 while bumbling through the conspiracy between a silly Chinatown gangster and a brutal Triad enforcer to smuggle Chinese immigrants into the city, force them into crafting counterfeit bills as repayment for their travels, and use the bills to pay a corrupt general for the release of several Triad leaders. While the scripts have changed hands over time from cult favorite Shane Black to more anonymous names, all of the pair’s films were directed by the same man, Richard Donner, who never entirely lived up to the triumph of the original Superman film he helmed, but does acquit himself well even here, with camerawork that’s very precise and smart in its building of tension and movement without much flash.
This film is intensely earnest in its presentation of dramatic beats, both the feelings and relationships of its protagonists (Riggs speaking to his wife’s grave, Murtaugh’s son in law taking a bullet for him) and the presentation of the plight of the innocent immigrant family, but that gravity is highly compromised and ultimately lost entirely due to either the execution of the beats themselves being utterly clumsy or the lack of grace in transition between these beats and the film’s deeply jarring other aspects and scenes. The script lacks any capacity for presenting not just disparate but highly contradictory tones as part of a cohesive whole, awkwardly shifting between faux-clever dialogue, outrageous set pieces in both action and comedy, (the laughing gas scene is a particularly flat and obnoxious offender) and these aforementioned more realistic and grounded beats that harken back to the series’ origins in portraying Riggs’ PTSD and suicidal tendencies. Something in particular that I can’t help fixating on is the relatively minor plotline, wherein the sheer amount of collateral damage accrued over the course of every action scene across all Lethal Weapon films, due to the actions of Riggs and Murtaugh, has cost the city its own insurance, and so the duo are promoted to police captains, to keep them out of fieldwork entirely going forward.
With impending childbirths, marriages, and active discussions of how even Riggs’ age is catching up with him now too and he needs to keep out of harm’s way for the sake of his newborn child, a retirement from fieldwork would be a perfectly sensible plot point, but ultimately the city regains its insurance and the two return to their original offices despite no effort on their parts to act more responsibly. Instinctively I understand that this outcome exists and occurs as it does primarily to ensure that the status quo of the series is not shifted too much so as to prevent more films from being able to happen. Riggs and Murtaugh can’t be permanently confined to deskwork if there’s more money to be made on their adventures; it’s pure scripting engineered by capitalism as so often occurs within the studio machine. However, this storyline nonetheless exists within the context of the rest of the film, wherein real world matters like the costs of rampant property damage on a city government, or police officers being so reckless as to endanger their surroundings and the civilians they should be in service to, are present and acknowledged but reduced exclusively to obstacles in the way of both the “maverick” heroes getting the job done by any means necessary and the audience’s purported entertainment.
This leads to the core of troublesome ideas within this film beneath its silly and messy exterior. Through its uncritical presentation of Riggs’ highly toxic behavior in both the central relationship dynamic the audience is asked to invest in and his position as a police officer abusing his authority, the film puts forth a disturbing ideology of masculinity as power, as abuse and torment, and justice itself as abuse, precisely because of the framing of this behavior as not only acceptable and even heroic, but harmless in its amusement and remove from reality. Affectionate teasing within a friendship is far afield from convincing a man to strip down to his underwear and dance in front of a heavily armed assailant, and that opening sequence is merely the tip of the iceberg of an ongoing pattern of abusing others, including further torment of friends and coworkers (the Joe Pesci character insisting at the end to Riggs that he’s the best friend he has is hollow at best and horribly tragic at worst), as well as harassment, property damage, torture, and forced intoxication of suspects, all presented as comical, righteous, and ultimately harmless, all at once.
I can find plenty of joy in plenty of action films, including police films, but this film is practically confrontational in its ugliness. In New York City not long ago, the man who chose to murder Eric Garner five years ago finally lost his job, one single example of real consequences, of rightful punishment, in a sea of cases of abusive police across the USA, and that man’s coworkers are quitting and protesting because their jobs simply aren’t worth doing if they will be held responsible for their actions. I see their mindset all over this movie.
The patterns within this film are informed further by the characterization of the Chinese population of the story alternately as helpless one-dimensional entities to be pitied and protected by the powerful men and an inevitably conquered foreign threat to their masculinity, one represented by a young action star rising above the aging American lead actors, no less. This is not a balanced representation in the same vein as the original film’s framework where both leads are military veterans, who can and speak to the trauma and social neglect of their backgrounds, in opposition to a band of veterans working as heroin smugglers. There was likely no conscious agenda beyond profit in the overall construction of this third sequel, but some of the numerous individuals involved in the production, from screenwriter to overseeing authority, fundamentally can’t help but have their perspectives inform their craftmanship and the craft itself.
With storytelling choices like the inclusion of the city insurance plot or such emotionally earnest and at least conceptually grounded characters, the audience are actively not being asked to ‘turn their brains off’, and with that the movie both opens itself to being held responsible for what it propagates just as much as an individual or a government entity should, and actively cuts itself off from the path of a consistent absurdism that could reframe the content it presents. The choices of the filmmaking and by proxy the film itself are directly opening its audience, any remotely conscious and adult audience anyhow, to associations with the everyday occurrences of male violence and police abusing power that were happening in the 1990s, quite famously in the film’s setting of Los Angeles no less, and are happening now. The roots of Lethal Weapon 4‘s failure as entertainment are buried deep in scripting and tonal decisions that take it beyond being merely a jarring, irritating experience, and into an exposure of the ugly sides of its genres by painting a deeply disturbing portrait of the state of masculinity in America and its intersection with the justice system.
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