Holiday action movie pick: Lethal Weapon (1987)
The first time they meet in a police station, Murtaugh (Danny Glover) tries to tackle Riggs (Mel Gibson) after he spots him pulling out his gun. After Riggs takes Murtaugh to the ground with some jujitsu moves, another detective tells Murtaugh he's just met his new partner. And thus begins the first of four Lethal Weapon films.
Today Lethal Weapon might seem like a cliche, but when it first came out it was something we hadn't quite seen before. Part of it had to do with Gibson's manic performance, but there was definitely something unique in the screenplay, written by Shane Black. This screenplay would go on to inspire thousands of other screenwriters and wanna-be screenwriters (myself included). While a screenplay isn't the finished film, it does provide a blueprint for everyone who makes the film. And Black made screenplay writing look like fun. Here's how it begins (in one of the drafts, anyway):
FADE IN: CITY OF ANGELS
lies spread out beneath us in all its splendor, like a bargain basement Promised Land.
CAMERA SOARS, DIPS, WINDS its way SLOWLY DOWN, DOWN, bringing us IN OVER the city as we:
SUPER MAIN TITLES.
TITLES END, as we --
SPIRAL DOWN TOWARD a lush, high-rise apartment complex. The moon reflected in glass.
The magic of Lethal Weapon lies in how these opposite characters relate to each other: Murtaugh is an older, stable family man on the edge of retirement; Riggs is young, alone, and suicidal. Riggs' mental state becomes apparent in a few early scenes, including when he busts some drug dealers who are working at a Christmas tree lot, and later when he tries to talk a man off a ledge, but then ends up jumping with him. It's both funny and sad -- but mostly funny.
Then there's the scene with the two partners on the police firing range. Murtaugh blasts a perfect shot and thinks he's just schooled his younger partner. But then Riggs goes to work, emptying his clip. When he brings the target back, we see that he's shot out a "Smiley Face." Murtaugh is both amazed and frightened.
This tension, that Riggs is both suicidal but also a "lethal weapon," drives the movie forward. He can kill people with his bare hands or even shoot at targets miles away. He's like a one-man army. In one scene, after the villain Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey) escapes in a car, Riggs takes off after him on foot. We realize this is the kind of guy we want on our side.
The film is directed by Richard Donner, who somehow balances all the elements, including the music (which included performances by Eric Clapton [Riggs' guitar theme] and David Sanborn [Murtaugh's saxophone theme]).
In the end, this isn't really a holiday film. But it's the perfect backdrop to amplify Riggs' depression, bringing him closer to the edge, and making him more dangerous for the bad guys.