RICHARD DONNER RETROSPECTIVE #1:
Lethal Weapon 3 (1992) dir. Richard Donner
Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Rene Russo
By Reece Crothers
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a continuing series reflecting on the films of Richard Donner
LW3 opens on a high note with Gibson's Riggs volunteering himself, and his way-too-old-for-this-shit partner, Glover's Murtaugh, to stand in for the bomb squad at a downtown skyscraper where explosives have been discovered in the parking garage. Chaos swirls all around them as cops and firemen evacuate the building and the two stars bicker like the old married couple they have become in the five years since the first film, clearly having fun returning to their now signature roles. It's a funny scene and the explosion that follows is a real gem compared to the CG fare we are mostly weaned on these days. This is the kind of scene an ordinary action picture needs an hour and a half to build to, but with the previous Weapon pictures filling in for backstory, director Richard Donner and screenwriters Jeffrey Boam and Robert Mark Kamen, wisely cut to the chase, or the bomb as the case may be, knowing that this is everyday stuff for these two guys. And therein, also lies the problem. There isn't much we haven't already seen.
Like any marriage, Riggs and Murtaugh have settled into routine. Moments like Riggs’ assault of a disrespectful citizen by way of Three Stooges "bits" is no longer fresh, as it was in the first one, or cute, as it was in the second, it's expected, played-out. The character, like the actor, has started to lose his edge.
This period in Gibson's career produced the mediocrity of "Forever Young" (the cryogenics-themed romantic snoozer with Jamie Lee Curtis) and Gibson's mostly ignored directorial debut "The Man Without A Face". The movie-star good looks of "Year of Living Dangerously" faded into a kind of bland handsomeness. Murtaugh's lack of development is less detrimental. It's amazing the mileage the filmmakers have gotten out of the Walter Matthau approach to his grumpy detective character (look no further than the ironically titled "The Laughing Policeman" for Mathau's definitive take). We don't want more from Murtaugh. He's perfect as is. But Riggs' crazy, suicidal cop, the evolution of the Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry model, the Riggs of Part One, who hand-cuffed himself to a would-be jumper and took both of them literally over the edge, who brushed his teeth with the barrel of gun, the crazy "lethal weapon" of the series' title (Remember the old poster? "Glover carries a lethal weapon. Gibson is one") is crazy no more. In fact he's ready to settle down, with series newcomer Rene Russo. The adrenaline junkie is in recovery. And reform is boring in movies. Russo and Gibson do have plenty of chemistry, though not exactly Hepburn and Tracy, they would co-star again in Ron Howard's "Ransom" (from a crackling Richard Price script) and in the fourth Weapon.
The real problem in the third outing is the total non-involvement of the original film's writer, Shane Black, one of those rare genre writers who manages a unique style and voice with stories that are often told and characters that we have seen many times before, somehow making them fresh and vital again, much in the way of Tarantino, who came later, but without the formal abstractions. Where Tarantino's ‘Pulp Fiction’ is heavily influenced by the structural experimentation of Godard, Black's anti-heroes are film-noir protagonists right out of the best of Chandler or Hammet. Only R-Rated. Imagine Humphrey Bogart's Phillip Marlowe with a dirty mouth and you might get something close to Bruce Willis' Detective Joe Hallenbeck in Black's "The Last Boy Scout", released the year previous to LW3. With the critical success of Black's 2005 directing debut "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", hopefully he will be back to tell more of his own stories.
Here the writers are Jeffrey Boam, whose credits include ‘Lost Boys’, ‘Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade’, and the second Weapon picture, and Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote all four of the original "Karate Kid" pictures and is now Luc Besson's in-house American, responsible for the "Transporter" series, the hit "Taken", and, as the story goes, the man we can thank for rewriting Besson's "Leon/The Professional" (which originally had the 13 year old in a sexual relationship with her hit man "guardian"). Boam and Kamen are solid genre craftsmen but they can't touch Black for dialogue, or edge.
On the plus side, Joe Pesci is back as Leo Getz and Donner keeps everything moving at a lightning quick pace. The stunts are great, the villain passable (Stuart Wilson is not the most exciting actor but his dirty cop character is sufficiently nasty, though the role was apparently offered to De Niro which would have been more fun). It doesn't break any new ground but the formula works, and for fans of the series, part three delivers on almost all expectations.