Saturday, January 29, 2011
WHY CAN'T WE BE FRIENDS?
Lethal Weapon 3 was one of the first movies I saw through a critical lens. I had, to that point, liked movies and not liked movies, but never really got into why. A while before, I had had the experience of watching The Addams Family movie and thinking to myself, “Wow, this plot is really stupid.” Then, in California visiting a friend of my parents (a professional writer), we happened to go out to the movies one night, and the only thing playing was The Addams Family, and as we were sitting waiting for it to start, my parents' friend asked me “So you've already seen this. Did you like it?” and I replied, “Yes, it's fun, but the plot is really stupid.” When the movie was done, he smiled at me and said, “You were right about the plot.” This is not just a Fisher Price My First Critical Assessment story, though; proud as I was of myself for noticing something like that, I started doing it more often, bringing us, relevantly, to Lethal Weapon 3, which I walked out of going, “Jesus Christ, that was really fucking stupid. The gang stuff was like they were trying to rip off Boyz N The Hood, except they fucked up because they're a studio and John Singleton actually cared about the movie he was making and getting stuff right.”
Yes, I developed my love for the word “fuck” at a very young age, but let's look at that again. A 13 year old boy walked out of a Lethal Weapon movie and thought it was stupid. If you do the math, and think about how stupid an action movie has to be for a 13 year old boy—who, despite a burgeoning erudition and an intellect that even then was considered quite fierce, was still a 13 year old boy—to find it stupid . . . yeah, if you're staring off into middle distance and exhaling slowly, I don't blame you.
Lethal Weapon 3 is a classic case of a franchise losing an accurate sense of where it came from. The first Lethal Weapon movie, it cannot be overstated, was an action movie with a handful of dumb jokes and funny lines. It was not a goofball stupid fucknut screwball comedy pratfall fucking thing with explosions. Also, the first two movies featured truly evil villains whose villainy had international implications. They were, in short, grown-ass man Evil White Guys In Suits. The villain in Lethal Weapon 3 is fucking bland. He's an ex-cop gun dealer developer manqué. Sure he might deal with some big-timers in the gun business, but he himself is a low-level dickface who, sure, kills some people and is not a nice person . . . but he isn't a proper Evil White Guy. He's more of a Mildly Unpleasant Caucasian, in the grand scheme of things.
The first two movies, bizarrely, managed to seem more realistic despite the fact that the Evil White Guys all had helicopters with machine gun mounts that they could fly around Malibu and downtown Los Angeles with no one noticing and massive armies of mercenaries capable of feats of badassery such as scaring Ed O'Ross (Ed O'Ross was fucking Viktor Rosta, okay? You scare him, eres chingón, 'mano) in the nightclub scene in the first movie where Gary Busey does his Liddy lighter trick. So for Lethal Weapon 3 they decided, hey, let's make the villain more “realistic”!
Only problem is with that approach, you actually have to make him resemble a real person. The bad guy, at one point, goes into a police station to personally kill a subordinate to keep him from aiding the cops. The fact that he manages to obscure his face from all the security cameras is supposed to make him seem all smart and shit, but when Internal Affairs cop Rene Russo reveals the existence of a brand new camera from exactly the angle they need to get a good shot of him, they know exactly who he is. Anyone who managed to stay a criminal long enough to be in charge of other criminals does not do that kind of shit. Bringing up The Wire in this context is like using C-4 to open your front door, but you never saw Avon Barksdale running around inside the fucking police station shooting witnesses. You get to be in charge by not acting like a fucking retard, and the villain in Lethal Weapon 3, Jack Travis or whatever the fuck his name is, is a fucking retard. That shit at the end where he's driving the tractor toward Mel at like two miles an hour and shouting out thirty different stupid variations on exhorting Mel to confront his imminent demise, and Mel stands there and watches him slowly inch toward him before picking up a MAC-10 with armor piercing bullets and finally shutting him the fuck up . . . sorry. Try again.
Then there's the whole thing where the bad guys have street gangs as their muscle. More bullshit, and in this case a truly weird attempt to capitalize on the currency of “hood” pictures like Boyz N The Hood and South Central (Menace II Society hadn't come out yet) by being exactly like the stupid portrayals of gangs in 70s and 80s movies that the cycle of Los Angeles-based “hood” movies were a reaction against.
Danny Glover has a big freakout and crisis of conscience after he accidentally shoots a gang member his son is friends with (don't ask, it's just more bullshit) but he pulls himself together over a truly saccharine funeral scene, scored to Boyz II Men's a cappella hit “It's So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday” in some of the cheapest sentiment seen in early 90s Hollywood.
Don't fucking get me started about Joe Pesci in this movie. Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam originally left him out, having some explanation about him having gone back to New York, but some dumbass exec thought people liked him, so he was written back in, utter superfluous other than to give Mel someone to make fun of. Such a waste; it's really painful watching Joe Pesci humiliate himself like this.
Surprisingly, the one thing that doesn't suck in Lethal Weapon 3 is the thing that, in a movie this stupid, should logically have been the worst offender: Mel's courtship of Internal Affairs investigator Rene Russo. First of all, with the shit Mel and Danny get up to in these movies, Internal Affairs should be up their ass. Second, Mel is enough of a dick to her that it makes her kind of sympathetic, so that when Mel is randomly over at her place and sees that she has a Three Stooges screensaver he's the one who has to stop being a dick to woo her; whenever it's the “tightass” character who has to “loosen up” the romance always seems fake. Especially since, in this case, she's doing a very valuable job: keeping cowboy assholes like Mel from violating procedure and blowing half the fuckin city up every five minutes. Also, since the two of them are totally emotionally 12 year old boys, it's both a cute romance and a plausible life partner match.
It's weird, with only one thing handled well in the entire picture—with the exception of some of the action scenes (but not all, the Joe Pesci at the hockey game one sucks wildebeest dick)—Lethal Weapon 3 ends up not being a total loss. You'll laugh, but I think that alone makes Rene Russo's one of the most underrated performance of the entire 90s. Consider she's the one thing that keeps this fucking movie from being a capital offense, and consider that this was 1992, the year of Marisa Tomei's Oscar (a clear sign that Oscar was showing the love to less-than-stellar movies), and I think you gotta talk about her as a Best Supporting contender that year. (Ed. Note: we're conveniently ignoring the fact that Angela Bassett, who wasn't nominated, should have won for Malcolm X, which should have swept every imaginable category for every award in the fucking universe that year; no, the author is not still bitter).
Lethal Weapon 4 is a huge improvement, by only being kind of stupid, though it's still a ludicrous mess and the action has long since abandoned the pretense of realism with which the first movie flirted occasionally. And Mel's Martin Riggs, by this point, had long since become more of an overgrown teenager than the legitimately crazy and dangerous motherfucker whose legit craziness in tandem with his fearsome fighting skills gave the movie its name.
The addition of Chris Rock as Danny Glover's new secret son-in-law is forced, and seems motivated more by “Hey, Chris Rock just re-invented himself as the greatest comedian in America [Ed. Note: irrefutably true circa 1998] and we can have him come in and do some shtick for a couple scenes, let's do it” rather than his character having anything more to contribute. His scene where he and Joe Pesci just stop the movie to riff to each other about cell phones for an hour, great as they both are, could easily have been cut with no problem.
Or, alternatively, replaced with more scenes of Jet Li owning motherfuckers. It should be no surprise, as a highly sophisticated cineaste with extremely refined taste, that I am a massive Jet Li fan. Evaluating his technical abilities as a martial artist is best left to people who actually know what the hell they're talking about, but I'll speak to the elegance and artistry of his moves, which make the direct and brutal moments like the one in Lethal Weapon 4 when he disassembles Mel's gun with one hand while his eyes are going “Man . . . seriously . . . go fuck yourself” all the more shocking. If anything, Jet is too good in Lethal Weapon 4; it's a stretch when Mel and Danny kill him in the end (sure, Jet's anger at his brother's death clouds his judgment, but that's a fucking lame excuse: when he's in his own movies Jet channels that anger into a mountain-leveling earthquake of kung fu, a bad guy apocalypse). To top it all off, the dude can act, too.
Jet's presence in Lethal Weapon 4, even if the movie itself wasn't a marked improvement over its immediate predecessor, would make it all okay, and he is most of what the picture has going for it. The “we all love each other” vibe of the supporting cast is hard to dislike, even if most of them don't really serve much of a purpose in the movie, and the scene when Mel, Danny, and Chris go to interrogate Triad boss Kim Chan at the dentist and accidentally all get fucked up on laughing gas (which is laced with truth serum or something, who knows) is very funny. But the story is clunky and lurches around all over the place, and poor Calvin Jung is saddled with the job of being the one token good Chinese guy who's tasked with explaining the entirety of Eastern culture to Mel and Danny. (I'm sure he was longing for the days when his only line in the picture was saying “Man, fuck you” to Robocop, at least one some level).
Really, neither Lethal Weapon 3 or 4 is much use other than giving the cast a chance to all hang out with each other again. You could do worse for a late-night cable movie than either, but the real Lethal Weapon experience is to be found in the first two movies. You know, when Martin Riggs really WAS a lethal weapon. The last two movies are profit-seeking engines powered by jokey-jokes and car chases; this would be okay in a series that didn't start out as promisingly, but is a bit of a letdown here.
However, in spite of that, it's not as though Lethal Weapons 2-4 are complete departures from the original. The elements taken by writers less talented than Shane Black and turned into the diminished quality sequels were there in the first movie. They kid around a bit, and ultimately it all comes back to family and how nice it is to have one, whether the one you're born into or the one you choose. It was subtler in the first movie, and the sequels could have correspondingly been subtle about it or taken it in different ways. But it was always there, and that's why as dumb and bad as Lethal Weapon 3 and 4 can be, they are not complete departures. They were always in the cards.