Apr 2, 2017

MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH LOS ANGELES - L.A In Print, On Film and Television: LETHAL WEAPON (1987)

Warning - spoilers and plot details of Lethal Weapon lie ahead.

When it comes to Christmas action films (who knew there was such a genre) one picture always dominates the conversation, Die Hard.  This past Christmas, I revisited that other L.A. Christmas action picture that doesn't get mentioned enough during the season, Lethal Weapon.

Scripted by Shane Black who is known for setting his films during Christmas time, Lethal Weapon was released in 1987 (one year before Die Hard) and still stands as the ultimate 80s buddy-cop picture.  Mel Gibson cemented his stature as a mega-80s-superstar as Martin Riggs, an on-the-edge and suicidal cop and Vietnam special forces vet mourning the death of his wife.  He is teamed with veteran cop Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) who is just "too old for this s--t" having turned 50 when we are first introduced to him.

It's Christmas at the Murtaugh house which takes an immense beating in this picture

Lethal Weapon was a smash hit and kicked off a blockbuster franchise consisting of 3 sequels and recently a TV series on Fox.  This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the film, so revisiting it recently I was asking myself before watching, am I now "too old for this s--t"?

Lethal Weapon is a surprisingly dark-toned picture, and I would even go so far as to call it an action-Noir which I believe is enhanced by the Los Angeles setting.  L.A. is very much a central character in this series with prominent locations like Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, Hollywood Boulevard and a beach near El Segundo.  The picture opens with the credits super-imposed over the Los Angeles skyline as the camera moves to an iconic circular hotel in Long Beach as a young, beautiful woman leaps to her death with a word (there is also one on Sunset Boulevard off the 405 that looks similar).

The opening of the picture already sets the Noir tone and establishes L.A. as the setting

I never really clued into the Noir elements in the picture until this most recent viewing.  First you have a lead character, played by a mega-star, who is seen shoving a gun into his mouth and contemplating suicide.  He lives in a small trailer by the beach with his dog, and keeps himself alive through re-runs of The Three Stooges.  Gibson's Riggs is an ideal Noir character, a law-enforcer who is a good cop, but clearly just one step away from going over the edge at any given moment.  Murtaugh thinks it is an act until a situation with a suicide jumper makes it clear to him that Riggs is a self-destructive powder keg just waiting to be ignited.  There is also a Vietnam vet backstory in play here that was becoming a big thing in films during this period thanks to films such as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.  Riggs' issues seem to stem more with the death of his wife, but it becomes apparent there are other demons at play here from his war years and his experience in special forces.

Murtaugh realizing that Riggs' suicidal wish is no joke

Danny Glover's Roger Murtaugh isn't exactly an upbeat character either.  Having just turned 50, he is starting to feel his age as he deals with his lovely middle-class family that seems to be maturing around him much too quickly.  You can tell he loves being a cop, but the years are starting to catch up with him and the introduction of the unpredictable Riggs enhances that.  Murtaugh's home life takes a beating in this picture as his daughter is kidnapped, the villains descend upon the house with no trepidation and the front room - Christmas tree and all - is demolished by a car smashing through the living room wall.  This trend continues into the sequels like in Lethal Weapon 2 when South African heavies break into the home at night, bind Murtaugh and his wife in their beds and threaten to blow their heads off.  Needless to say their insurance premiums must be through the roof.

Gary Busey as the picture's heavy, Joshua

This brings me to the villain, Joshua, played by a still sane and (at least visibly) sober Gary Busey.  Joshua has no qualms going directly after the LAPD, kidnapping an innocent (Murtaugh's daughter) nor attacking a home in broad daylight during a wedding with a barrage of gunfire from a helicopter (a scene that later is copied to an extent in the Shane Black directed Iron Man 3).  He is just as lethal as Riggs, but more calm and collected making him more dangerous than your average thug.  The fight between he and Riggs on the lawn of the Murtaugh residence in the mud as fellow LAPD officers watch on, is dark, violent and unsettling as the two beat themselves to a pulp.  Riggs is getting all his demons out on Joshua who has threatened his newly adopted family, the one that has begun to help with the healing process and bring him back from the edge.

Tis' the season to fight on a lawn in L.A.

The score by Michael Kamen has an tone of melancholy to it, with a jazz sax wailing in the background mixed with his usual dose of pulse-pounding actin cues, it plays up a Noir feel that other action pictures just don't have.

The Christmas tree lot gunfight, a unique setting

Finally this brings me to Los Angeles, and the part it plays.  During the day, it has the feeling of oppression with the sun constantly beating down during a time when most of the country is cold, snowy and dark.  A gun battle in a Christmas tree lot is as noisy and as brutal as they come, definitely not in the holiday spirit and enhancing the idea that Christmas in L.A. is something out-of-the-ordinary.  It may be Christmas, but L.A. is a hard town even when it comes to buying the symbol of the season, a tree.  Later the location shifts to the desert, reminding us that Los Angeles and is surrounded by this hot, barren terrain.  It almost doesn't feel like the United States as Murtaugh and Riggs confront Joshua in an effort to get Murtaugh's daughter back (even more surreal is the addition of a limousine that is among the vehicles present).

The Car chase set piece on Hollywood Boulevard is a highlight of the film

A brutal and exciting action sequence that begins on Hollywood boulevard and moving to the nearby 101 Freeway is the piece de resistance of the picture's set pieces.  It is amusing watching in 2017 as Riggs is able to run around Hollywood brandishing a machine gun without a badge, and is merely flagged by an LAPD office who doesn't seem to react to the weapon at all.  Had it been Murtaugh waving that piece on the streets at night without identification, would he be treated as fairly?  The sequence is big, bold and surreal, an action sequence that plays up the L.A. surroundings in a dark setting that once again spotlights that L.A. truly is alive at night, but underneath all the glamor of Tinseltown there is an element of menace, something that Film Noir and the writings of authors such as Raymond Chandler really put the spotlight on.

Nobody minds Mel running around with a Machine gun on 1987 Hollywood Boulevard.  Not sure he'd be so lucky in 2017.

Am I calling Lethal Weapon a Noir picture?  No, not at all.  It is really what it appears to be on the surface, a big, blockbuster buddy-cop action picture.  It is a smarter movie though than one would think it to be with fleshed out characters and a distinctive Noir tone that you can tell both writer Shane Black and director Richard Donner has injected into it.