Lethal Weapon begins on Murtaugh's 50th birthday, a milestone that causes him to remark frequently that he is too old for this [stuff]. The film itself is only half Murtaugh's age -- it opened 26 years ago this week, on March 6, 1987 -- and already feels ancient, but it's not the movie's fault. If it seems dated, familiar and riddled with cliches, it's mostly because of the other movies it inspired.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: two cops (preferably of different ethnicities), one a rule follower and one a loose cannon, are partnered against their will to work a case. They bicker, they banter, they save each other's lives, and they end up friends. If the box office is good, there are sequels. Lethal Weapon may not have invented any of these tropes, but it was the first movie to combine them into one cohesive, popular blockbuster, building on the groundwork laid by movies like 48 Hrs. (cop paired with criminal), Beverly Hills Cop (unorthodox detective mostly works alone but causes friction when he doesn't), and Running Scared (in which both cops are unorthodox).
In addition to its three actual sequels, each of which made more than twice as much money as the original did, there have been countless imitators and offspring. Thanks to Lethal Weapon, the "buddy cop" film became its own genre: Tango & Cash, Bad Boys, Rush Hour, Men in Black, Hollywood Homicide, Shanghai Noon, Starsky & Hutch, The Other Guys, and on and on and on. Even a non-comedy like Se7en, with its black, older, sensible cop paired with a white, younger, reckless one reminds us of the Lethal Weapon scenario.
The formula was still fresh when Lethal Weapon did it, and the movie was an instant success. Mel Gibson, 31 years old and already gaining fame from the Mad Max films and critical darling The Year of Living Dangerously, became an international superstar. The seven films he headlined in the next five years -- Tequila Sunrise through Forever Young -- grossed $500 million in the U.S. alone. Danny Glover had earned respect through his work in The Color Purple, and while his career never took off the way Gibson's did, Lethal Weapon made him a household name. (He was also 41 years old when the film was released -- far too old to have a shot at being the Next Big Thing in youth-oriented Hollywood.)
Gibson's more recent offscreen exploits don't need to be rehashed here, but it's fascinating to watch Lethal Weapon and see in the character of Martin Riggs facets of Gibson's own personality as we've come to understand it. Riggs is reckless, even suicidal --brash, impetuous and hot-tempered -- yet also disarmingly funny and loaded with charisma. He has legitimate cause to feel anger and pain (his wife died), but has trouble channeling or controlling it. Riggs eventually worked out his issues and found some semblance of normalcy; we're still waiting to see if Gibson can do the same.
It would help if Gibson's life were being scripted by someone as sharp as Riggs' was. Shane Black was only 23 when he wrote Lethal Weapon, and he followed it with like-minded screenplays for The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodnight. (He wrote the first version of Lethal Weapon 2 as well, but was unhappy with the drastic revisions -- he wound up with a "story by" credit -- and left the franchise.) Black's 2005 directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which subverts some of the cliches he helped to invent, was an underground success that should have been bigger, but it was enough to get him back in the game. He directed and cowrote Iron Man 3 (due May 3), about a snarky, self-destructive playboy who fights crime with unorthodox methods and has a strait-laced black best friend to keep him in check -- familiar territory, in other words.
When Lethal Weapon was released 26 years ago this week...
- It opened in first place, bumping off the previous week's A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Angel Heart was a fellow new release, opening in fourth place behind the 12-week-old Platoon. Also in the top 10 this week: Outrageous Fortune, Some Kind of Wonderful, Mannequin, Hoosiers, Black Widow and Crocodile Dundee (which had been in theaters for six months!).
- Danny Kaye, Andy Warhol and Liberace had all just died. That's sad. But things were looking up! Ellen Page, Darren Criss and Ke$ha were all infants, and Bow Wow only had three days left in the womb!
- U2's "Joshua Tree" album was days away from hitting stores. The Beatles' first five albums had just been released on compact disc for the first time. Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" was in its fourth week as the number-one song on the Billboard chart. Aretha Franklin had recently been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- the first woman to receive the honor.
- Silver Spoons had just aired its final episode, and The A-Team was about to do the same. The top three shows on TV were The Cosby Show, Family Ties and Cheers, an NBC Thursday lineup that predated "Must-See TV" by a decade. Thirteen of the top 20 shows in 1987 were half-hour sitcoms.
- President Reagan had just two days earlier given a public address acknowledging the Iran-Contra Affair. Congressional hearings on the subject would preempt daytime TV later that year, frustrating kids who were out of school for the summer and wanted to watch Days of Our Lives (not that I'm speaking from experience).