I planned to start my 1989 retrospective with something perhaps a bit more artistic, but screw it, I was on a roll. Lethal Weapon was the kind of hit that would undoubtedly get a sequel, which must have sent chills running down the spines of geeks back in the late '80s. After all, those were the halcyon days of blowing crap up, but it all fell apart in the sequels. Rambo, Predator, Temple of Doom, they were all major letdowns (Aliens is exempt, as nearly a decade passed between sequels and the original was a horror film, not an action extravaganza).
It is therefore a total shock that Lethal Weapon 2, the follow-up to a film with some of least attention to the plot of any action film in the '80s -- and Lord is that saying something -- is every bit as good as the original. This is all the more impressive when you consider that this film actually has themes it wants to address, which easily could have spelled doom for a franchise built upon the line "I'm too old for this shit."
The first thing that caught my eye when I watched this film for the first time was its acknowledgment of past events. I would expect Murtaugh's house to be completely rebuilt following the events of the previous film, and indeed for any concrete details of that film to be forgotten period. But, sure enough, Murtaugh must cope with the arduous repair process as well as the loss of police car.
Initially, plot doesn't even enter in the frame. Donner and writer Jeffrey Boam, working from Shane Black's story, know that people tuned in to see Gibson and Glover do their thing, and the first 10-15 minutes involve them chasing low-ranking bad guys and trading barbs. There's a particularly funny bit involving Roger's daughter starring in a condom commercial, which the entire department watches thanks to Riggs' big mouth.
Eventually, though, we meet our baddies. As with the last batch, they're drug runners, but with a new twist: they're also South African diplomats and thus immune to any investigations. To be honest, the film's chief flaw is its loose grasp on diplomatic immunity, as these guys seem to think that they are immune no matter what they do. Their South African background opens up a racial subplot on account of the tension over apartheid, but thankfully it never gets in the way. Mainly, it serves to set up one-liners for Roger.
Aiding Martin and Roger's quest to break these villains is Leo Getz, an accountant and money launderer for the diplomats. Joe Pesci, normally the intimidating, thuggish wee-man, instead plays Leo as a total incompetent, a babbling fool with a gift for numbers but not human interaction. He so thoroughly annoys his protectors you think they might just turn him over to the South Africans to stop the noise. Pesci nearly steals the show as the manic Getz, with his shrill rants on minutiae and his constant use of the word "OK."
Having a plot could have dangerously distracted us from all the fun that made the original so great, but Donner makes good use of his bigger budget with some jaw-dropping stunts, including a brief but thrilling car chase and two all-out assaults on the South Africans. There are Bond-esque one-liners thrown in for good measure, but the characters know how ridiculous those things are.
Lethal Weapon 2 does not benefit from its extended cut as its predecessor does, but I can't find an area where it hurts it, either. Everything about it is bigger and badder, but it also has a narrative as compelling as its characters this time around. Some of the lines addressing apartheid and the juxtaposition between evil South Africans and tolerant American cops -- in the LAPD, no less -- are too simplistic, but it's all worth it for a line as deliriously cheesy as "They've been de-kaffirnated." It may not be high art, but Lethal Weapon 2 is one of the most worthy sequels ever made, and something you should always keep handy for a rainy day.