Lethal Weapon (1987)

Growing up, there were two action movies that defined the genre: Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. It's been at least a decade since I sat down and watched any version of Lethal Weapon. After doing so, I was immediately impressed with just how well Die Hard continues to hold up.

It's not that Lethal Weapon is bad. Actually, for its sub-genre, it's really good. There aren't a lot of buddy-cop action flicks from the 80's or 90's that hold a candle, and the ones that do owe a lot to Lethal Weapon's success. But at the same time, the movie is incredibly cheesy without having as much fun with that cheese as many of its imitators. There's still fun to be had in Lethal Weapon; just not nearly as much as I remembered.

Like Die Hard, the film is set at Christmas. But while Die Hard has fun with this juxtaposition, Lethal Weapon tries to use it to play up a sense of isolation and depression. A lot of Lethal Weapon is devoted to loss and suicide: for a while, the movie is essentially a noir. Holiday decorations and music are juxtaposed with the darkness around it. It's a fine idea, but the execution feels manipulative and obvious.

Besides, it all gets undermined by the excesses of modern action movies. The good guys are essentially bullet-proof, while the bad guys seem to fall on bullets (often to the irritation of the heroes, who'd really like someone left alive to interrogate). The plot is paper thin and essentially amounts to a trail of bread crumbs leading the protagonists from one set to the next. There are no repercussions for making mistakes that get bystanders or police killed, nor does there seem to be any kind of oversight.

Okay, I get that these cliches weren't as common when the movie was made as they are now. I appreciate that what the movie did right - namely, giving its heroes flaws, personalities, and developing their relationship - influenced a generation of action films. In addition, the movie sells the idea that the main action hero and the villain are actually insane. Kudos to both Mel Gibson and Gary Busey for creating that illusion: I totally bought it.

In the context of when it came it out, this is a really good movie. But more than twenty-five years later, that formula has been built upon. In my opinion, Shane Black's later scripts have been light-years ahead of this: Lethal Weapon can't hold a candle to Long Kiss Goodnight or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Die Hard is a historically important action movie that still completely holds up; Lethal Weapon is an important action movie that mostly holds up. There's still enough great character moments and funny situations to make it entertaining, but it certainly didn't age as well as the competition.