Ever see Mel Gibson buy a Christmas tree?
If you know the coke-deal-and-yule-tree scene from Lethal Weapon, featuring Gibson unleashing Three Stooges violence on a trio of miscreants, then you know why the movie has become a seasonal favourite at our house and many others. Nothing says, ‘Peace on earth, good will toward men,’ like a blistering shoot-out with a drug dealer in a Christmas tree lot.
Lethal Weapon is a buddy cop crime drama involving drugs, extreme violence, very bad language and nudity; something for everyone, in other words. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d look for in family entertainment during the festive season.
When the movie was released in 1987 it set the bar high for explosive action and effects. This is, lest we forget, the start of a four-movie franchise that helped cement Mel Gibson’s movie star status in Hollywood. The Aussie actor was moving into the most successful decade of his acting career, and pairing the manic Gibson with the laid-back Danny Glover on these Lethal Weapon movies was an immediate hit.
As you’d expect from a movie set at Christmas time, Lethal Weapon has a wide streak of the redemptive to it — although, as we’ve come to notice over the years, it’s usually only Mel Gibson’s redemption that counts for anything in a Mel Gibson movie.
In Lethal Weapon, Gibson stars as Martin Riggs, a detective with a death wish. His young wife has died in a car accident and Riggs doesn’t really want to live any more. The situation adds emotion and depth to the story, but is also a source of much black humour, allowing Riggs to be over-the-top and utterly fearless on any assignment. The movie is full of his bravado and his bulls—-: he jumps off a building cuffed to a potential suicide, he headbutts people left and right, he strangles a man with his feet. He’s one crazy mofo cop.
Let the action begin!
On his side, Danny Glover plays a cop nearing retirement who just can’t wait to get the hell out. Glover is Roger Murtaugh, a peace-loving detective counting the days until he can retire and give back his gun and his shield. He is horrified to discover the manic, trigger-happy Riggs is his new partner.
Yeah, they meet cute. Then it’s Mutt & Jeff action for two hours.
Darlene Love — yes, that Darlene Love — plays Mrs. Murtaugh.
Lethal Weapon involves a complicated crime scenario and eventual fisticuffs with a very bad guy played by Gary Busey. This is old times, before everyone went squirrely: it’s Mel Gibson acting crazy versus Mel Gibson being crazy, which came some time later, and ditto Mr. Busey.
As for the Christmas influence, Lethal Weapon begins with the Bobby Helms version of Jingle Bell Rock. And it ends with a festive family celebration and Riggs’ decision to get over his death wish and choose life — at least until the sequel, and that awesome nail gun fight sequence. Gross!
ALL THIS AND ART, TOO
Lethal Weapon was one of the movies that helped establish uber-producer Joel Silver, a guy who knew how to make things blow up good – and look nice doing so.
Consider the beginning of Lethal Weapon, a movie involving thrills and chills that were unprecedented for the cinematic times: The camera comes to rest on a beautiful woman, who appears to be napping; she gets up to snort coke and ingest other drugs and then she wobbles out onto her apartment balcony to gaze at the city below, all lit up for Christmas.
Then she jumps to her death.
The camera follows her down. Her body appears untouched, her expression tranquil, as she comes to rest on the top of a car, which buckles under the impact.
The shot of the beautiful dead girl on the crushed car is perhaps a nod to the famed 1947 picture of Evelyn McHale, photographed by Robert C. Wiles just minutes after McHale jumped to her death from the Empire State Building. McHale, who is wearing little white gloves, is untouched and appears to be sleeping.
We like to look for arty things in producer Joel Silver’s movies, even though extreme stunts and amazing action sequences were his calling card. Silver had a big interest in Frank Lloyd Wright houses, which he used to buy, and he said of movie-making, "I’m not in it to make art. I’m in it to make money to buy art," which is the sort of thing Joel Silver was always going around saying. Lethal Weapon, not to mention 48 Hours, Predator, Die Hard, The Last Boy Scout and The Matrix were all Silver productions, all movies intended to blast you out of your theatre seat.
In the best way, of course.
What it meant to moviegoers in the ’80s and ’90s was eye-watering special effects and action stunts. And maybe the odd touch of art.