Psycho Pension Qu’est-ce que c’est: Richard Donner’s ‘Lethal Weapon’ Is a Real Live Wire

Written by Tim Pelan. Photo credit: John R. Shannon © Warner Bros., Silver Pictures

By Tim Pelan

You think I’m crazy? You call me crazy, you think I’m crazy? You wanna see crazy? Well, what do you wanna hear, man? Do you wanna hear that sometimes I think about eatin’ a bullet? Huh? Well, I do! I even got a special bullet for the occasion with a hollow point, look! Make sure it blows the back of my goddamned head out and do the job right! Every single day I wake up and I think of a reason not to do it! Every single day! You know why I don’t do it? This is gonna make you laugh! You know why I don’t do it? The job! Doin’ the job! Now that’s the reason!
Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson)

Before subsequent installments dialed up the yuks and irritating side characters, 1987’s Lethal Weapon had a satisfyingly hard edge to its big screen take on the buddy cop scenario, previously seen as a TV trope. It had a fresh for the time “too old for this shit” family man detective partnered with a genuine loose cannon, always looking for a reason to damp down his grief and make it through one more day on L.A.’s dirty streets. In a sense, Shane Black’s effervescent $250,000.00 dollar script revitalized the action-adventure genre in the late ‘80’s and laid the groundwork for Die Hard’s “regular schmo” hero, putting character front and center amidst spectacle. (In fact, Bruce Willis was in the running to play Riggs at one point, alongside Kevin Costner and Richard Gere, amongst others.) “I’d always been a fan of noir cop thrillers,” Black told Empire. “They used to show heavily edited movies after Monday night football and I’d watch them on our tiny little TV set.” Lethal Weapon is essentially the nihilistic, tar-black humor of Dirty Harry, married to the Western tradition of a mentally scarred bad-ass gunslinger returning to the civilizing influence of the townsfolk, but having to “let the monster out of his cage” before he can rejoin the fold. The film dials up the mayhem and skill set on both sides of the law—detectives Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) are both Vietnam vets, Riggs a particularly skilled one, and so are the bad guys—ex-special forces, Shadow Company, carrying on where they left off in the war, smuggling drugs onto L.A.’s streets from the jungles they once fought in. Murtaugh tells Riggs about his service in Ia Drang Valley in 1965, the first major engagement between NVA and American troops in the war. Years later, in 2002, Gibson would play Lt Col Hal Moore, commander of the American unit in the battle.

Murtaugh has just turned 50 (Glover had just turned 40—Gibson also aged up) and is winding down on the job. Riggs is a suicidal narcotics officer mourning the death of his wife after a traffic accident. Transferred to homicide and partnered up with Murtaugh after an inauspicious introduction at the station house, Murtaugh clocks Riggs’ unfamiliar, unconventional looking frame maintaining his non-regulation Beretta handgun, shouts an alarm, and is promptly roughhoused to the floor, gun in face. Meet the only detective on the force registered as a “Lethal Weapon.” Together they investigate the death of Amanda Hunsaker, the daughter of Murtaugh’s war buddy Michael Hunsaker, who, it transpires, is in it up to his neck with the bad guys—they killed his daughter as a message when they found he’d been skimming from the money he laundered for them. Needless to say, things escalate and get personal real quick, shaking Murtaugh out of his slumber.

Gibson plays Riggs with what he recalled being called at the time as a “nearly cuddly pathology”—he’s crazy, but fun to be around until the switch flips. Until Murtaugh witnesses for himself Riggs’ reckless approach to rooftop suicide negotiation—cuffing himself to the poor slob, tossing the key and jumping to a just inflated airbag—he has him pegged as a phony looking to collect his “psycho pension.” Riggs is seen as an authority figure, not expected to jump. As much as he is trying to shake the jumper out of his emotional state, he’s confessing his own hopelessness to the only other person on the scene who might get it—“A lot of people have problems, especially during this silly season.” When Riggs swallows the barrel of Murtaugh’s gun and pulls the trigger (in front of a painted storefront window proclaiming “Everything must go”), his partner just manages to block the hammer with his thumb. Shit just got real. Murtaugh’s infamous “I’m too old for this shit” actually originated with William Petersen’s Secret Service character Richard Chance’s aging and about to retire partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A.

As Murtaugh explodes about how it’s his birthday and how he’s made it this far, the pressure valve is released and they seem to come to some sort of rapprochement: “I just hope we stay alive long enough for me to buy you a present,” Riggs grins. Gibson’s tortured toying with his gun, pushing himself to pull the trigger on himself apparently impressed director Franco Zeffirelli enough to cast him as “The Dane” in his production of Hamlet. It’s ironic that Gibson and Willis almost switched places in early casting sessions for Lethal Weapon and Die Hard—two films that within a year of each other break the mould of the strong, silent type hero, each character buckling and crying under stress and, in Riggs’ case, PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Whereas Murtaugh has a happy family life, Riggs lives a shambolic existence in a beachfront trailer home, only his dog for company. “I picture Riggs as an almost Chaplin-esque character,” Gibson said, “a guy who doesn’t expect anything from life… he’s not like these stalwarts who come down from Mt Olympus and wreak havoc and go away.” Only the job keeps him going, if only for the fact that the more risks he takes, the more likely it is he’ll die on duty, saving someone, when he couldn’t save his wife. That’s why he can’t bring himself to load that bullet in his gun each morning and blow his brains out. “Well, what do you wanna hear, man? Do you wanna hear that sometimes I think about eatin’ a bullet? Huh? Well, I do! I even got a special bullet for the occasion with a hollow point, look! Make sure it blows the back of my goddamned head out and do the job right! Every single day I wake up and I think of a reason not to do it! Every single day! You know why I don’t do it? This is gonna make you laugh! You know why I don’t do it? The job! Doin’ the job! Now that’s the reason!”

The police therapist’s concerns are dismissed by their captain in an unconscious institutional dismissal of the realities of the toll of police work. Mandatory (The Myth Of Macho) opines that, “While Lethal Weapon’s primary goal was not necessarily to investigate ideas of depression or mental illness in male authority figures, it was a positive outgrowth of the film. While we can all recognize that Lethal Weapon has cultural value as being a well-written and exciting action film, the fact that it can be studied on another level usually reserved for taboo gender-dynamic subject matter makes it even more fascinating. By endowing Martin Riggs’ character with psychological ailments and trauma and then allowing the audience to endure multiple private experiences with him, Shane Black aligned us with him, and placed us within the ‘stigmatized’ camp. While we are definitely on Roger Murtaugh’s side, we feel more for the ‘crazy guy,’ meaning that we have now been given the ultimate experience: we now have a small, intimate glimpse of what it might look like to be a suicidal cop, with all the trimmings.”

Credit for the chemistry between the leads must go to director Richard Donner and his wife. Gibson was his first choice for Riggs—he always had a mad glint in his eye (and now we know just how off the chain he can get in real life), but the director initially didn’t even consider that Murtaugh could be black. “[The script] just said, ‘Roger Murtaugh—going on 50.’ Marion said to me, ‘Did you see Color Purple? What about Danny Glover?’ And my first reaction was, ‘But he’s black!’ And then I thought, ‘Whoa, fuck, here’s Mr. Liberal. What a brilliant idea…’ I felt stupid. It changed my way of thinking.” A couple of scripted dodgy racial epithets and gay slurs aside, the mixed-race buddy scenario opened the door for the film and sequels to display a social conscience explored through Murtaugh’s chaotic family dynamic, beginning with the “Free South Africa” sticker on the family refrigerator. This, of course, leads to the villains of the sequel being South Africans laundering Krugerrands whilst waving “Diplomatic immunity” in our heroes faces, and Riggs galvanizing his partner with “We’re back, we’re bad, you’re black, I’m mad!” This social messaging apparently led to Donner receiving death threats. It seems toxic fandom is nothing new.

The action and violence of the film are spectacularly loud, often accompanied by the blaring Michael Kamen score startling the bejeezus out of you as, say, a helicopter rises from beyond a Pacific cliff front and Gary Busey’s icy Mr. Joshua shoots someone through a drink carton. Black seems to love helicopter assaults—the clifftop house assault here is mirrored in Iron Man 3. I also love the hostage rendezvous in the desert as Murtaugh ditches Riggs to run and hide in sniper mode while the bad guys approach in cars with Roger’s teenage daughter Rianne, chopper covering them menacingly. “I tried to make it more like an old-fashioned western,” Donner told The New York Times. “Sure there were a lot of deaths, but they died like they died in westerns. They were shot with bullets, they weren’t dismembered. I like action and a strong storyline. I like to turn my head away in suspense, not in disgust. I think the audiences feel like I do, and that’s why people like the film and come back to see it a second time.”

Busey flipped on a dime from Oscar nomination as nice guy pop star Buddy Holly to an almost albino, stripped down malevolently calm shark in a suit. “Mr. Joshua, he would walk through his grandmother’s blood to get a postage stamp and never look at her… I had this look (he told Empire) It gave me the eyes of a shark, which has no life. It’s neat doing that.” He’s like an evil flip side to Riggs. When the heroes burn the bad guys’ drug operation down, he just goes for Murtaugh’s family rather than cut and run, almost like The Terminator—now there’s an idea… He and Riggs face off mano a mano, illuminated by squad car prowler lights and destroyed Christmas decorations in the filthy mire of Murtaugh’s torn-up lawn, soaked by a busted fire hydrant. Gibson and Busey trained for two months in the Brazilian martial arts of Capoeira and Gracie Jiu-jitsu, as well as Jailhouse Rock—a collection of improvised styles developed within US prisons. The fight was filmed over several nights.

As to why Lethal Weapon (and many other Shane Black films) is set at Christmas? The writer told Den Of Geek, “It’s unifying, and all your characters are involved in this event that stays within the larger story… It grounds everything. At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friends and families go by. People take… stock of where their lives are at Christmas. It just provides a backdrop against which different things can play out, but with one unifying, global heading. I’ve always liked it, especially in thrillers, for some reason. It’s a touch of magic.”

“You ever met anyone you didn’t kill?” Murtaugh asks Riggs at one point. Only the good guys, it seems. In the final reel alone, where Riggs exits from the backstage torture den of Shadow Company’s nightclub front, capping anyone shady who looks at him funny, and Murtaugh deliberately leaves the General to burn, trapped in his car, Lethal Weapon does exactly what it says in the title. But through his interaction with Roger and his family, Riggs finds a reason not to use that hollow point bullet he’s been saving for the time when he can’t go on anymore without his wife. He knocks on Roger’s door at the end and leaves it wrapped as a gift, laden with meaning. “Riggs is quite a romantic character,” according to Donner. “In the end, he finds a desire to live, and that’s a nice growth process.”

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »

In the video above, director Richard Donner, Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, and Rene Russo at A Tribute to Richard Donner on June 7th, 2017 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Reuniting Mel Gibson, Danny Glover and Richard Donner, by Nick de Semlyen (Empire). Photographed by Austin Hargrave.


“I would write a bunch of scenes because I had a sense of the shape and a feel of a cop film that I like to watch, but gradually something emerged and that was the sense of a Frankenstein story. Sort of an urban western where the old gunslinger is this sort of this wounded Frankenstein who sits reliving the war, reliving the gun fights in his head. And everyone because they’re in sort of a lull, this sort of a gentrified suburban community now where we think in our society that the west is tamed and they can’t hurt us, that evil is somewhere else. But this guy, the gunslinger, knows better. Meanwhile they call him a baby killer and they shun him and they think he’s weird because his skills are so distasteful and horrible. But then violence comes to our classic community—our sweet little lullaby is broken. Then the city all goes out to the gunslinger basically and says, ‘look we hate you, we despise you, we think you’re crazy but we need you now because you’re the only one who knew the truth all along. Which is the west isn’t gentrified, it’s still wild. And now we’re fu#@ed because you’re the last guy who remembers how to handle this sort of thing so we need you.’ And that kind of gunslinger thing was what I set out really to do.” —Shane Black on writing Lethal Weapon
“I recommend if you haven’t read it go back and read Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid , the original screenplay by William Goldman who was sort of my mentor, my rabbi, along with James L. Brooks. There’s plenty to be found in these old writers especially Goldman. Walter Hill and William Goldman are two of my favorites and if you’re going to write screenplays, or if you already are and you want a boost or a shot in the arm—look at the structure, they way they’re written, the style of those two authors—Walter Hill and William Goldman— because between the two of them they account for the bulk of the stylistic stuff I do on the page as a writer.” —Shane Black speaking to students in Minneapolis

Screenwriter must-read: Shane Black’s screenplay for Lethal Weapon [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon. Photographed by John R. Shannon © Warner Bros., Silver Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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