by Will Mann
The premise: After being assigned to beat-cop duty for accidentally letting a bomb go off in an L.A. skyscraper, and with Murtaugh’s retirement fast approaching, Riggs and Murtaugh stop a robbery. This brings them into an investigation on a former cop who has apparently gone bad, and mixes them in with the beautiful Internal Affairs agent (Rene Russo) charged with finding him…
What works: The best addition to this installment is the introduction of Russo’s Lorna Cole, who on top of being a capable and bad-ass female cop character in a series that, up to this point, was basically a sausage-fest, is also a fun foil and counterpoint to Riggs. The dynamic the two of them share is fun, and Russo and Gibson have a natural chemistry. While it might’ve been borrowing a little too heavily from a similar scene in Jaws, the scene of Riggs and Cole comparing scares shows that these two are basically equals, and adds a new, interesting character to the tried-and-true Lethal Weapon dynamic.
I also liked the “ticking clock” of Murtaugh’s imminent retirement. While “damn, I was only 2 days from retirement” is a tired pop-culture trope at this point, it added some much needed tension, and even some misgivings and a question of “what happens next” to Murtaugh and Riggs’ relationship. (And when this subplot gets an unsatisfying conclusion at the ending, it makes you consider the squandered potential had they actually decided to follow through with it.)
And while this series has never really thrived on villains, I like the introduction of this installment’s villain, Jack Travis, played by Stuart Wilson. In fact, he might be the best individual villain the series has had up to this point. I like that Travis, unlike the villains of past movies, is the singular antagonist and not part of a bigger group. I like his background as a cop-turned-evil. And I like that we don’t learn that much about him, that he’s a character that can live on his own without some sort of tragic backstory.
And while it contributes to one of the film’s biggest flaws (which I’ll get to later), I like Murtaugh struggling with the fact that he not just fatally shot a 17-year-old kid who was shooting at him, but that the kid he shot was also a friend of his son’s. I like seeing Murtaugh weighing the morality of this decision, and the added weight it brings to his character.
What doesn’t work: Basically, everything else.
Lethal Weapon 3 is a hodgepodge of different scenes and scenarios. Some things are set up and never fulfilled (Murtaugh gets a creeper stalker named Delores who is obsessed with him….. aaaaaaand the film stops having her about halfway through, rendering her entirely pointless) and the film focuses too much on some things (why exactly is Joe Pesci’s Leo Gatz in this movie again?) while dropping the ball on others. (When I’m writing this, I only saw this movie only several hours ago, and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what the villain’s ultimate plan was.)
From the strange opening involving Murtaugh and Riggs trying to defuse a bomb that’s set to detonate that ultimately demolishes a skyscraper (an action that has surprisingly little-to-no repercussions on the plot itself) to a poorly-planned, poorly-executed scene set a hockey game, to the climax itself, not a lot in this movie makes sense. Riggs even develops a habit of eating doggie treats? And that’s not the film’s only example of dated, juvenile humor. There are a lot of gay jokes that maybe resonated with audiences in 1992, but don’t ring as particularly appropriate or politically correct in 2016.
And while I did say I liked the added emotional weight of Murtaugh grappling with his killing of a young friend of his son’s, in an era where music groups like N.W.A. and movies like Boyz n the Hood were challenging notions of how we viewed the inner city, this film’s subplot about gangs seems like a glorified after-school special: schmaltzy, and lacking any sort of notion of reality, particularly for a film set in post-1991 riots Los Angeles.
Finally, while his work on Superman (which it is probably important to note isn’t a very action-heavy superhero movie) helped revolutionize the modern superhero genre, I just gotta go out and say it: Richard Donner is not a very good action director. A lot of the action scenes scenes have wonky editing, poor sound editing, cliché slo-mo, and a poor sense of direction in terms of both camera movement and characters placement in a particular scene. A lot of them are flat or downright boring. Not every action director can be a Paul Verhoeven, John McTiernan, James Cameron, or George Miller, but in terms of action, Donner’s work strikes me as particularly lackluster considering we’re three movies in at this point. While his impressive filmography includes everything from beloved horror classics (The Omen), nostalgic 80s kids movies (The Goonies) and one of my favorite Christmas movies ever (Scrooged), it’s obvious that action is simply not Donner’s strong suit, despite what was on display in the first Lethal Weapon.
Final thoughts: I know they get a bad rap, but I like a lot of third installments, particularly in long-running franchises. Goldfinger is arguably the best Bond movie. The Bourne Ultimatum is easily the best Jason Bourne movie. Third installments like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Mission: Impossible III, and Die Hard with a Vengeance brought in things like more personal stakes, characters with personal relationships to our protagonists, and more terrifying villains than had previously been attempted in their respective franchises. More recently, Captain America: Civil War was a rewarding third installment. I even admire perceived third-installment duds, like Rocky III, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and yes, even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, in part for their willingness to do something different, to tell a different story than their predecessors.
Lethal Weapon 3, in contrast, is the worst example of what you can do with a third installment. It breaks little-to-no new ground. After the slapstick-and-comedy-heavy Lethal Weapon 2, I was hoping the series would really delve into Riggs and Murtaugh, their characters and their relationship. When they were downgraded to beat cops at the beginning, I thought that would be an interesting dynamic, and would show us those characters in a capacity and a context we’re not used to seeing them in. It is abandoned mere minutes later. Or maybe have Riggs and Murtaugh butting heads, fighting each other on a case that has no clear answers? There are hints of that, but it, like most other things in this movie, isn’t explored well. The closest they come to butting heads is calling out each other for their respective addictions to cigarettes for Riggs, alcohol for Murtaugh, or the scene at Murtaugh’s boat that doesn’t really linger or tell us things we don’t already know.
What was originally a fun buddy-cop movie is now jumbled by too many characters, strange shifts in tone, and action that lacks any sort of investment or stakes. Moments of genuine character insight have been replaced with scenes that only serve to get our characters to a certain place so they can do a certain thing that forwards the plot. This movie was a disappointment, and I was honestly surprised how bored I was by it. At the end of the day, Lethal Weapon 3 is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Will’s final installment of his Lethal Weapon Summer is tomorrow!