So after watching Lethal Weapon a few weeks ago, it was natural to follow it up with…Lethal Weapon 2.
The second LW movie is one of the rare sequels that is of comparable quality to its predecessor. I don’t think it’s quite as good, but it’s awfully close. The story this time doesn’t make quite as much sense, and it’s quite a bit harder to follow, but it helps that the villains in this movie — South African diplomats, led by the ultra-smarmy Joss Ackland as Arjun Rudd, using their diplomatic immunity to run drugs and launder drug money — are some of the more gleefully malevolent villains I can remember.
To note that the movie opens in medias res is actually an understatement; I can’t think of a way for a movie to plop us in the middle of the action more than this one. After the opening title card fades, the first thing we see and hear is a close-up of Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) screaming “Ya-HOOOO!” in the middle of a high-speed chase through downtown LA. His partner, the more even-keeled Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), is driving as they pursue some thieves, or drug runners, or something. Any explanation for why they’re in the middle of a chase is shouted quickly and it’s easy to miss it all entirely. I’ve seen this movie a lot of times, and I’ve never been entirely sure as to the set-up for the chase. The chase ends, though, and Riggs and Murtaugh discover South African coins filling the trunk of the car. They’re on to something, it seems.
This is one of those movies where several different plotlines seem to careen in and around one another, and we’re not sure as to what the connections are until the final act. As the whole South African thing percolates in the background, Riggs and Murtaugh are assigned to babysit an accountant who has been laundering drug money, skimming from the take, and agreed to turn state’s evidence against the drug dealers. This accountant turns out to be a high-strung guy named Leo Getz, who is played with some energy by Joe Pesci. Did I say “some” energy? It’s actually manic energy. Pesci’s character was extremely memorable; for years after this movie came out, the canonical impression people would do of Joe Pesci was to say, in Leo Getz’s standard way, “OK, OK, OK, OK, OK, OK.” And, of course, his signature bit of dialogue, in which he rants about fast food service: “They f*** you at the drive-thru!”
The creation of a third unique character to bounce off Riggs and Murtaugh is one of the movie’s wise steps; had they kept things focused on just the two cops, some of the dynamic might have started to become routine. In the course of the movie, Murtaugh doesn’t really develop a whole lot, but Riggs continues to grow and open up after stepping back from being suicidal in the first film. He even becomes attracted to a woman again, who happens to be the administrative assistant to the film’s villain.
The film’s third act becomes pretty intense, and in some ways, I’ve always felt it might be a little too intense. The villains decide to make a statement by slaughtering a whole bunch of Riggs and Murtaugh’s fellow cops, and attempting to kill Riggs and Murtaugh themselves (they escape, obviously). It begins with the villains murdering a whole bunch of cops, and the film takes a pretty dark turn thereafter, when one villain discloses some information to Riggs regarding his wife’s death. I remember this particular revelation being pretty surprising when I saw the movie, and I wondered then — and still wonder — if it was really necessary.
The action sequences in the film are all superb; it seems to me that Richard Donner has never really gotten his due as an action director. The humor this time out is broader, but most of it works. Murtaugh has one of my favorite lines of the “Goofy pun the hero makes after the bad guys are done with” variety: “They’ve been decaffeinated.” (This is a pun on the South African word kaffer, which is their equivalent of our own N-word for black people.) And it’s hard not to get a thrill from the scene where Riggs uses his pickup truck to destroy a house (a visual effect that was filmed for real using a full-size structure).
I recently read that Shane Black, one of the writers, wanted Riggs to die at the end of the movie, thinking that it was the logical end to his “arc”. I’m not sure why there is so often a tendency to think that characters need to die once their “arcs” are complete; Black’s thinking seems to be that we’ve already seen Riggs learn to live again, and once he’s open to possibly loving again, well, that’s when he’s fully back, so it’s time for him to die. I don’t get this, any more than I get the people who think (Harrison Ford among them) that Han Solo should have died in Return of the Jedi. Riggs dying would have made for a very downbeat finale to this movie.