by Will Mann
The premise: With Riggs about to become a father and Murtaugh about to become a grandfather, the two stumble upon a human-trafficking scheme with immigrants from China. Alongside a new detective, Lee Butters (Chris Rock), who might be hiding something from Murtaugh, the gang unites once again and fights to go against the Asian crime syndicate responsible, led by Wah Sing Ku (Jet Li).
What works: Chris. Freaking. Rock.
Seriously. For all of this movie’s flaws (which are many, and will be discussed), something that they added that not only works, but works really well is Chris Rock’s character Detective Butters. Rock is suave, witty, funny, and gives us a hint of the star-power he would ooze over the course of the next 2 decades. I like the dynamic that he is the father of Murtaugh’s daughter Rianne’s baby, and the tightrope-walk of sucking up to Murtaugh while covering up that truth. It’s not Rock’s best role ever, but much like Lorna in Lethal Weapon 3, he is a fun addition to the Murtaugh/Riggs dynamic. And he has easily the best line in the film: “You have the right to remain silent, so shut the fuck up, okay? You have the right to an attorney. If you can’t afford an attorney, we’ll provide you with the dumbest fucking lawyer on earth. If you get Johnny Cochrane, I’ll kill ya!”
Oh, and something you might have noticed from that quote, the cursing in this movie increased tenfold for the last installment. It actually makes this seem like a little bit more of an adult, mature film. And particularly Joe Pesci thrives by flinging the f-word around, as he gets to channel his inner Goodfellas.
Visually, this movie seems to have had a bigger budget than the previous one, and it shows, particularly in a crisper cinematography that shows the action more clearly. Shot aren’t as flat as they were in Lethal Weapon 3, and there’s visual flair in this film that the series doesn’t really seem to have had since the first installment. Action scenes are more fun to watch, particularly one where Riggs fights bad guys on a house being driving down a highway.
The film ends with Riggs back at his dead wife’s grave, asking permission to marry Lorna. It’s a little corny, but it seems like a nice cap-off to this series, as well as a nice tip-of-the-hat to past installments.
What doesn’t work: Is it a cop-out to say most of the movie as a whole?
The movie starts with a character straight out of a superhero movie, with a bulletproof metal suit, flamethrowers and assault rifles destroying downtown Los Angeles. (Ah, pre-9/11 phobias, how innocent and naïve you were.) In the midst of this gun battle, Murtaugh reveals that Lorna is pregnant with Riggs’ baby, and Riggs reveals that Murtaugh’s daughter Rianne is pregnant as well. The whole thing climaxes with Murtaugh stripping down to his underwear and doing a chicken dance to distract the bulletproof, armored, flamethrower-and-gun dude so Riggs can shoot his gas canister, which he does, which results in a huge explosion.
That basically tells you what you’re in for the rest of the movie.
The main conflict involves people being stolen from China to become workers in America. And despite the radical anti-apartheid message in Lethal Weapon 2, Lethal Weapon 4 is about as culturally sensitive to people from Asia as Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s like Big Trouble in Little China with absolutely NONE of the irony or meta-commentary. Asian characters are basically stereotypes and caricatures (I’m not kidding, the front of the Chinese mafia is a Chinese restaurant, which allows them to make a lot of Chinese food-related puns and jokes). Most of the problematic purpose of these Asian characters seems to either be antagonists (Jet Li is wasted on a film like this) or to be adopted by our American protagonists. (I’m not kidding, Murtaugh adopts AN ENTIRE CHINESE FAMILY at one point, while Riggs and Lorna take a young refugee under their wing after he frees them from Murtaugh’s burning house. Uggghh, this movie…) That’s not the only example of the film’s insensitivity. Gay panic is yet again a thread in this film, as Murtaugh wonders if Butters has the hots for him.
Lorna, the breakout character from the previous film, is delegated to being a damsel-in-distress, limited because of her pregnancy. There are wacky scenes of interrogating the bad guy using laughing gas at a dentist’s office, and Pesci’s Leo and Rock’s Butters making riffs about cell phones… for some reason? The film squanders every possible opportunity for something interesting, resulting in a lot of it looking like a giant middle finger to the audience. There’s a conflict where Lorna has gotten word that Internal Affairs is investigating Murtaugh because of how much cash he seems to have. I thought that might pay off into something interesting, because the possibility that Murtaugh has a side job outside of the law really intrigued me. Stupid me! It turns out Murtaugh’s wife writes the trashy sex books Lorna likes to read!
Wackity schmackity dooooo!
Remember that nice scene towards the end at Riggs’ wife’s grave that I mentioned? Yeah, it’s ruined by Joe Pesci’s character Leo stalking Riggs (?) at the grave and telling this really weird story about a frog that he loved that he used to kiss hoping it’d turn out to be a princess (?) but then the frog got run over and he was devastated because he loved the frog and he didn’t think he’d have another friend as good as the frog, until Murtaugh and Riggs came into his life. Leo’s lines in that scene should be taught in screenwriting 101 as an example of WHAT TO NEVER DO. Then, the film goes on to show Lorna going into labor, but not before marrying Riggs in the hospital, where they are married by a rabbi. (Insert joke about Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism here.) And then Lorna’s baby is born, as is Rianne’s. Then someone takes a picture of the two happy families. And I thought Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King had a hard time figuring out when to end…
Final thoughts: Ah, we finally arrive at the end-point of many a failed franchise: the self-satirizing sequel. Sometimes it’s intentional (most of the later-era Roger Moore James Bond movies have their tongue firmly in their cheek), and sometimes it’s not (Batman & Robin). Sometimes it’s the result of lower budgets and waning public interest (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). But it happens to the best of them. Most horror franchises get to the point of self-satirizing, be they Freddie Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Jaws, etc. But Lethal Weapon is a rare action franchise that gets to that point. I know I’ve bashed a lot of Lethal Weapon 4 above, but it seems to take itself so not-seriously AT ALL that it’s a little bit easier to forgive some of its flaws (which there are a multitude of) than it is to forgive the flaws of its predecessor.
Did they know what they doing? Did they want to make a Lethal Weapon film that openly and actively makes fun of the type of tropes that appear in Lethal Weapon films? Part of it seems like they were (like the fact that the city insurance can no longer cover Murtaugh and Riggs because of how destructive they always are; Murtaugh and Riggs chanting “we are NOT too old for this shit” in the men’s locker room; there’s even a cut scene from the trailer of Chris Rock pretending to play the character of Riggs), and the rest of it just look like the incompetence of Lethal Weapon 3 returning in full force.
Because of that, Lethal Weapon 4 is more interesting to watch than its predecessor, either in a “is this self-satire?” or a “c’mon kids, let’s go look at the trainwreck!” kind of way. Don’t get me wrong, it’s bad. Like, from an objective level, it is probably the worst installment in the series. But there’s something compelling about watching it, like the production, actors, screenwriter, etc. just all collectively gave up and didn’t care anymore, but somehow were all still able to finish a movie and get it released to theaters.
I get why Lethal Weapon 5 was never made (excusing the version on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, obviously) and it’s a point I brought up before: these movies existed solely in a pre-9/11 world. It would be damn close to impossible to update this franchise for the post-9/11 world the way James Bond and Die Hard were updated to varied results. But more so than that, it seemed so constricted to this particular time and place that suddenly transferring it to 21st-century sensibilities would’ve been seen as a misstep. And as it is, no installment demonstrates the timeliness, craziness, inflexibility and occasional stupidity of this franchise more than Lethal Weapon 4.