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Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon (1987)
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Lethal Weapon Collection

Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Mel Gibson and Danny Glover

(US DVD: 22 May 2012)

Even though their action sequences pale in comparison to modern cinematic extravaganzas, the four movies that make the Lethal Weapon series remain exciting and fun to watch. Violent, witty and upbeat, these movies do not have a single dull moment. And contrary to standard expectations, the quality of the flicks is not inversely proportional to the number of sequels in the franchise. Indeed, all four films were made with the same high standards of acting, narrative, sounds, and visuals. 


Arguably, the consistency of the series is due to producer Joel Silver. Best known as the creative mind behind truly explosive films of the caliber of The Matrix, Die Hard, Commando, and Predator, Joel Silver has almost single handedly redefined the modern action genre. Indeed, all the basic ingredients that characterize these groundbreaking films can be found in the Lethal Weapon movies: spectacular chases, humorous dialogs, bombastic music, and decent character development. 


As a matter of fact, Joel Silver may be the best example against the French auteur theory that places all the creative credit of a film solely onto its director. Indeed, most of the films produced by Joel Silver feature a strong creative and ideological consistency. From The Warriors and 48 Hrs. to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Joel Silver has unfailingly presented his unique artistic vision in more than 100 films produced over a period of 33 years. Think about it, the impact, relevance, and legacy of Joel Silver’s body of work has greatly outlasted the celebrity of the major performers of the genre, including the names of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Mel Gibson. 


In this regard, the presence of Gibson in the Lethal Weapon films is nothing but problematic. Even though these movies were made years before his fall from grace due to his miscalculated chauvinistic remarks, one cannot stop thinking about the actor’s questionable moral character. And this is a real shame, as Gibson has been a truly visionary force in modern cinema, in front and behind the camera. But then again, such feelings are a natural consequence of the inescapable intertextuality cultural constructions infused in the viewer’s mind. That is, films are not made in a cultural void and the response to them is heavily influenced by the current cultural landscape.


Nonetheless, if one is able to escape for a while from such a complex intertextual baggage, then one is guaranteed a rollercoaster ride with the Lethal Weapon flicks. In these films, Gibson cleverly plays Martin Riggs, a seriously disturbed cop with a death wish. His experience in the Vietnam War conducting black operations has literally transformed him into the lethal weapon of the title. With extensive training in weaponry, sharpshooting, and hand-to-hand combat, Martin is an overwhelming destructive force. As made clear at the beginning of the first film of the series, the death of his beloved wife has left him a wounded man pondering suicide and enduring a solitary existence.


In such a fragile state of mind, Martin is partnered with Roger Martaugh (Danny Glover), a seasoned cop living a relatively dull reality. While eagerly waiting the few years left to reach retirement age, Roger’s main concerns are attending his affectionate family and repairing his beloved boat. As the films made obviously clear, Martin and Roger are the antithesis of each other. As a matter of fact, the success of the Lethal Weapon films resides in the amusing and ingenious portray of the cultural clash between the two main characters.


The dramatic contrast between Martin and Roger is further exhibited by virtue of their race (white and African-American, respectively). In what now has become the quintessential example of the interracial buddy film, Martin embodies tough physicality, unrestrained masculinity, and volatile behavior. On the other hand, Roger stands for family and social values, serving as a moral compass to Martin’s actions. Needless to say, the narrative construction of the Lethal Weapon films is such that the manliness of Martin is fabricated in reference to Roger’s life and attitude. That is, Roger’s main purpose in the storyline is to highlight the unbounded hyper-masculinity of Roger.


But then again, what made each entry of the Lethal Weapon series to feel innovative and fresh was the astute decision to introduce new pivotal characters as the sequels progressed. Thus, the hilarious comic relief embodied by Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) was introduced in the first sequel; Lorna Cole (Rene Russo), the tough detective that becomes Martin’s love interest made her first appearance in the third film; and Lee Butters (Chris Rock), Roger’s son in law made his debut in the last entry of the series. As a consequence, each sequel kicks the previously established hornet’s nest by introducing new social dynamics, further enhancing the conflicting interactions between the characters. Across four films, all major characters undergo a substantial character arc.


Perhaps the only major deficiency in the Lethal Weapon films is the lack of truly memorable villains. This obvious shortcoming was somewhat addressed in the last entry of the series with the introduction of Wah Sing Ku (Jet Li), the terrifying leader of the Chinese criminal organization in Los Angeles. However, this move proved to be too little too late. Indeed, even though Martin and Roger have to fight dangerous drug dealers and mercenaries in the first three films, none of them proved to be a formidable scoundrel. 


For those interested in watching these action flicks and reliving the humorous and exciting adventures of Martin and Roger, Warner Home Video has released a beautiful box set containing the four films in Blu-ray format. Even though the films show their age (25 and 14 years old for the first and fourth flicks, respectively), the image looks as good as it will ever be. And the same can be said about the sound quality, which enables the viewer to enjoy the fantastic score composed by the late Michael Kamen.


This Blu-ray presentation includes a variety of bonus features, including the director’s audio commentary in all four films. Unfortunately, Richard Donner does not appear to have much to say about his movies. Indeed, long periods of silence indicate that either Richard Donner has forgotten most of the details, or that he is truly enjoying watching again his own films. A few added documentaries, music videos, trailers, and teasers round up a nice presentation of an important series of action films. By any means, this collection is highly recommended to discriminating action film buffs.

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Marco Lanzagorta received a PhD in physics from Oxford University and has worked at prestigious research institutions in England, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico and the US. During the past 25 years, he has conducted research in physics, computer science, and neuroscience. Currently, Marco is a research physicist at a major defense research laboratory in Washington DC, and an affiliate associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.


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