If there’s one constant in Mel Gibson’s film career, it’s vengeance. The actor has starred in at least half a dozen films as a “man on the edge” forced to transform into a ruthless killing machine to avenge the loss of an innocent loved one. This screen persona began with the Mad Max films and was further honed with Lethal Weapon 2, a film that curiously isn’t as readily placed in the Mel Gibson retribution-action category as some of the actor’s other work.
One of the reasons Richard Donner’s follow-up to the gritty buddy-cop film Lethal Weapon stands out from other revenge tales in Gibson’s career is that it possesses a decidedly comical tone, particularly more so than that of its predecessor. It boasts as many chases and explosions as any other film of its kind from the era, but what’s most impactful is the rapport between Gibson and co-star Danny Glover. Almost every scene in Lethal Weapon 2, from the opening car chase through L.A. to the toilet-bomb explosion, finds a rhythm by centering on officers Riggs (Gibson) and Murtaugh (Glover), specifically their verbal exchanges and expressions. A late twist turns the film into a vengeance parade for Riggs, but Donner doesn’t stop long enough for the film to become too dour. Rather, he uses these scenes to anchor the third-act conflict.
The story sees Riggs and Murtaugh take on a gang of South African drug dealers led by a consul-general (played with relish by Joss Ackland) with “diplomatic immunity,” who eventually declares war on the police. It’s fairly ordinary stuff, with some elements especially feeling like leftovers from Die Hard, which had come out only one year earlier. Most notably in both cases, the main villain is a sophisticated suit-wearing man with a foreign accent. Additionally, each villain has an intimidating sidekick that gets off on violence. Ackland and Derrick O’Connor may not look like Alan Rickman and Alexander Godunov, respectively, but they serve much the same capacity here.
But while the story may not be especially memorable, Jeffrey Boam’s brisk screenplay and Donner’s workmanlike direction keep things moving enough to gather enough momentum in preparation for Gibson’s third-act, tear-down-the-house rampage. Until then, though the main conflict suffers from a lack of intrigue, Lethal Weapon 2’s many subplots and emphasis on the Riggs/Murtaugh relationship outweigh any deficiencies (including a few embarrassing one-liner puns) and modestly elevate otherwise banal material beyond other films of its kind. Moreover, the material comes alive primarily thanks to the performances. For example, although the subplot involving family man Murtaugh’s daughter starring in a condom commercial smacks of condescension to middle-American values, Glover still manages to tease out a comic payoff, as the enthusiasm on Murtaugh’s face gradually fades away as he watches the commercial.
Another example of Lethal Weapon 2 getting a lot of mileage out of uninspired material is the character of Leo Getz (Joe Pesci). On paper, Getz is annoying and one-dimensional, the former by design. But apart from his rapid-fire line deliveries and consistently high voice pitch, Pesci lends a very physical presence to the character (such as accentuating Getz’s small stature) that serves as an effective contrast to Gibson and Glover’s gun-toting masculinity.
In terms of action, the set pieces in Lethal Weapon 2 are simple, but striking for their scale and tangibility, especially given the synthetic nature of many actions films today. But what makes the film such a precedent of its type is how it not just focuses on the characters amid the action, but reveals greater dimensions to them. The film still contains an alarming amount of violence (much of it committed with casualness, to boot), but it’s remarkably attuned to the feelings of its core characters, so much that each utterance of their trademark sayings (“I’m getting too old for this shit”) and banter (“On three, or three, then go?”) becomes an expression of the unstated camaraderie between them.
By the time the third-act retribution begins—after Riggs’s new love interest (Patsy Kensit) is killed by the same men who killed his wife years ago—the focus appears to shift away from the main duo and onto Riggs. Indeed, Gibson’s stone-faced intensity is so effective that it reaffirms why the actor would go on to be typecast in roles involving vicious retaliation over the next 20 years. But notice how Murtaugh pleads with Riggs not to go through with it, as if he already knows that Riggs won’t listen, and then immediately goes to defend him at risk to his life and career. You could argue that it’s standard cop-movie stuff, which is hard to refute, but there’s a basic humanity to the performances that speaks in quieter and far more resounding ways than the customary ensuing gunfire.
Follow Ted Pigeon on Twitter at @tedpigeon.