Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) dir. Richard Donner
Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Chris Rock, Joe Pesci, Jet Li, Rene Russo
By Reece Crothers
From the continuing series In Praise of Richard Donner.
There is an amusing story about Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone, who famously fell out over their uneasy 'collaboration' Natural Born Killers (a film I think is a masterpiece and one of the best pictures of the 90s) wherein Stone tells Tarantino that while the younger director makes "movies", Stone makes "Films". I like that for two reasons: First, it is exactly the type of pretentiousness that we all love to hate Oliver for, and second, because it provides an appropriate context to discuss the fourth installment in the Lethal Weapon franchise. Is LW4 a great film? Of course not. But is it a great action movie? Well, it's a very good one at least.
It loses some points off the top for the rushed intro to the characters and the story. It's like the opening of LW3 on fast forward. There is no set up whatsoever. If you haven't seen the previous pictures you have no idea who these two cops are. And if the filmmakers aren't taking the story seriously, how are we supposed to? The best sequels are films which stand alone. Do you need to see the first Terminator to think that T2 is awesome? I don't think so. Same goes for The Dark Knight, which pretty much renders Batman Begins as obsolete. This is not one of those sequels.
The warning signs in Part Three that things were starting to get a little stale come to full bear here. Most of what happens feels forced. The screenplay by Channing Gibson lacks the cohesion of Jeffrey Boam's work on the previous sequels, and it lacks the explosive wit and energy of Shane Black's benchmark work on the original. But should you really apply expectations of originality on a part four of anything?
So what does this film offer, other than recycled ideas from the first three? Well there is the welcome addition to the team of Chris Rock, as an eager young detective who unbeknownst to Danny Glover, is about to have a baby with Glover's eldest daughter. Glover's growing pains regarding his daughter's sexual maturation is a key component to any Weapon picture, even if it is one of the more sitcom-y elements. Remember how nervous he looked when his teenaged daughter Rianne flirted with his then-new partner in the first picture? Then of course their was Rianne's condom-commercial in the second picture, and here she is about to have Chris Rock's baby. Rock is fun to watch but imagine what he could have done back when the franchise still had edge?
Glover handles his scenes well, and a lot of things work that shouldn't simply because Glover is so damn lovable in his signature role. He hasn't changed much since the first movie back in 1987. And that's the way we like him. He was never a complicated guy. Gibson, however, as in the last picture, has lost all of his edge in his performance as Riggs. How much so? He finally gets to utter the overused "I'm too old for this shit" line. Actually it's a nice moment when he says it, but then things get sort of embarrassing as Riggs and Murtaugh start chanting "We're NOT to old for this shit!". It was nice when they acknowledged it, kind of pathetic when they disputed it. Looking especially worn and retired is Joe Pesci, who despite a rather poorly written, sentimental monologue, does his best with a character who ran out of juice between LW2 and LW3. Is this film to blame for Pesci's 8 year hiatus between this and 2006's The Good Shepherd? Even that was only a cameo and since it was directed by De Niro, his co-star from the great Scorsese pictures that represent his best work, and produced by The Godfather, Francis Coppola, himself, one has the impression that that particular performance was an offer he couldn't refuse. Only recently has Pesci resurfaced in a role of any significance, though in an ultimately forgettable picture - Taylor Hackford's 2010 drama Love Ranch.
Other than Rock, the other reason to watch is Jet Li. His climactic fight on the rain battered bridge near the end of the picture is actually superior to the goofy Gibson/Gary Busey karate match at the end of LW1. Li kicks Riggs and Murtaugh's asses SIMULTANEOUSLY. Of course, he can't win in the end and so he ultimately meets a brutal death when Gibson gets lucky and spears Li through the chest with a metal pole, but it's the best scene in the picture and is right up there with the best of Richard Donner's action sequences. Actually in a film that is cranked up to deafening levels, Li's quiet portrayal of the villain is maybe the best thing about LW4. And while he is a household name now, this picture served as Li's American film debut and an introduction to western audiences unfamiliar with his Hong Kong filmography. Li is a much finer actor than many of his films require. What he does is closer to Buster Keaton than Bruce Lee. I found him strangely affecting in his Luc Besson-produced collaborations Unleashed and Kiss Of The Dragon, though I would really love to see him in a film actually directed by Besson.
It does nothing to disprove the law Of diminishing returns, but LW4 is an entertaining, if disposable, action picture. And while it never reaches the heights of the original Weapon picture, it is still far superior to the majority of films that are little more than clones of that first iconic classic. Donner is still in fine form here as an action director. The best sequences make me think that someone from Marvel should get Donner to direct one of their next pictures. Fuck the guy who did 500 Days Of Summer. How is that an audition for Spider Man? Seriously, this guy did the best Superman, still one of the most commercially and critically successful comic book adaptations ever, despite all of the advances in special effects wizardry and cgi since the 70s. Give him the next Iron Man or something already. Jon Favreau should go back to material like Made. But that's a conversation for another day.