I'm not saying anything revelatory when I say that the '80s had the best action movies, but I'm reminded every time I pop one in. Those were the days, when men (and women: see Aliens) could blow up everything in sight just because. Action films with actual themes -- Aliens...uh, did I mention Aliens? -- were few and far between, while the rest were just magnificent effects reels. Certainly among the cream of the crop is Lethal Weapon, Richard Donner's buddy cop film to end all buddy cop films.
Lethal Weapon is a thing of beauty, one that owes its success to placing everything on the rapport between Danny Glover's safe, experienced veteran Roger Murtaugh and Mel Gibson's insane, Special Forces-trained upstart Martin Riggs. Obviously, buddy cops live and die by the buddy pairings, but usually they're so generic that it's hard to care either way about them. But Riggs and Murtaugh stand as possibly the greatest buddy cops in the history of the subgenre. It inverts the tired, racially unsettling pair of the reserved white cop and a shrill, wise-cracking, young black man, and the result is classic.
Murtaugh is celebrating his 50th birthday at the start of the film; his children playfully tease his graying beard and he laughs it off, only to shave the beard before reporting for duty. As the old men in these films invariably must, he needs a new partner, and now he's reluctantly paired with Riggs. Riggs, of course, is the polar opposite: suicidal since his wife's death, we meet him -- in Donner's director's cut -- facing down a sniper picking off children in a schoolyard. Riggs marches deranged into the field of fire, stands his ground as bullets fly around him, then he aims and takes his shot. Someone tosses out the mandatory, "You're crazy, but dammit you're good."
The plot is about as simple as they come: the daughter of an old family friend turns up dead, so Roger pledges to find her killer. As he and Riggs trace the clues, they uncover a massive heroin smuggling operation. The smugglers are led by a retired General McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) and his top henchman Mr. Joshua. Also a member of an elite Special Ops team, Joshua is utterly insane, though that might simply be a byproduct of being portrayed by Gary Busey.
The fights with these two criminal leaders are epic, and they produce magnificent one-liners. The film doesn't have much in the way of character arcs outside of stabilizing the depressed Riggs, but the scene where Joshua and a thug torture Riggs offers a downright chilling (and thrilling) moment when Riggs stops screaming long enough to tell the two that he's going to kill them. Say what you will about Gibson, but he has the charisma and the chops to pull off every aspect of this role, from the Three Stooges-loving loon to the morose depressive to the fearsome ex-soldier. Lines like "I'm too old for this shit" are tried and true classics, and the final showdown in the rain is textbook '80s.
There's really not too much to say about this film. You don't need to check your brain at the door to buy the story, but you also don't need to use it as Riggs runs barefoot down a street with a machine gun chasing a speeding car, nor do you need one when Busey is burning his hand for absolutely no reason. The editing is just a bit much at times, but Donner knows how to keep things interesting. His director's cut is one of the better extended cuts around, adding some wonderful character touches such as the aforementioned school shootout and a scene where Riggs hires a prostitute simply to watch TV with him without losing an ounce of momentum.
Too many films these days try to shoehorn themes into the explosions -- which is not to be frowned upon, but it's rarely done well -- or run in the opposite direction and stretch things miles beyond any reasonable suspension of disbelief. Lethal Weapon is a reminder fun can be good and dumb without being developmentally challenged.