Saturday, March 22, 2008

We're going to get bloody on this Rog

Homer's Great Movies - Lethal Weapon

Greatness is a subjective concept when you are dealing with art.  What makes a great movie? Good actors? A good director? A good script? All of the above, or none?  There are so many movies out there that achieve greatness in so many different ways that it is problematic to dictate what a great film is, there are only people who like particular films.  Since my opinion is at least as valid as Michael Medved, whose moralistic screeds read like Calvinist rants wasted on the decadent American society of today, I figured I'd discuss a variety of movies that I think are great.  Up first is a groundbreaking action film of the late 80's, Lethal Weapon.

The mid to late 80's were a sort of golden era for action films.  Stallone and Schwartzenegger ruled the box office with their bloated, over-wrought cinematic abortions, heavy on the killing and one liners, short on character, plot, and authenticity.  Despite their popularity, these films were usually not very good.  Released in 1987, Lethal Weapon was different.  It showed a seedy side of L.A. that wasn't quite noir, but rather reflected the dirty underbelly of the L.A. drug culture that still retains some of the glitz of Hollywood.

The film was ostensibly action based, but for long stretches of time nothing happens.  We get actual character development, something rare in the genre.  We see Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) struggling against the desire to kill himself, we see Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) struggling to come to grips with his age and the fact that his children are growing up, and we see how these two men reluctantly accept the other into their lives.  The relationship between the two drives the film, elevating it from a 48 Hours imitation to something more.  The relationship between these two men off screen seems to have developed as well, but the two characters work organically towards some middle ground and it is fascinating to watch it happen.  

The cast sets this movie apart.  Yes, Glover and Gibson are fantastic in this film, but the rest of the cast with Gary Busey in his second tolerable role, Darlene Love as the glue of the Murtaugh family, and Mitch Ryan as General McCallister all give solid, effective performances.  Busey in particular should get a lot of credit, he could have gone way over the top as Mr. Joshua, but did not and the film is better for it.  Another interesting note is that this was one of the few films from the late 80's to deal with Vietnam veterans as people rather than symbols of a political agenda.  Most vets in action films were maladjusted losers and loners, that is not the case here, you simply have good guys and bad guys.

The plot is deceptively simple.  A group of ex-Vietnam veteran/mercenaries is importing heroin from Asia.  Riggs and Murtaugh stumble onto this fact in the course of another investigation.  The two detectives are pursuing these mercenaries when the mercenaries strike directly at the officers and Murtaugh's family.  As I said, the plot is simple, but the way in which the connections are made from the beginning of the film to the end are subtle.

This isn't to suggest that this movie is perfect however.  There are three things about this film that drive me crazy, the first of which is the fact that Eric Clapton and David Sanborn need to be killed, well maybe not killed,  but certainly maimed for what they subject the audience to with the music in this film.  The final two things that hurt this movie relate to the final climactic scene between Mr. Joshua and Riggs.  First of all the thought that the LAPD would let a cop killer and general psychopath duke it out with a fellow officer while everyone watches is patently stupid, but to really kill the scene Richard Donner directs the scene with all the skill of a six year old with his parents Super 8 recorder.  

Either way, the bad score and horrific ending are not enough to keep this movie from being one of the greatest action films ever made.  Not the best, but right up there.  It revitalized the action genre as a place where characters count.  Unfortunately, as the series went on, the film-makers lost track of what made the movies so popular and so good.

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