Christmas: Lethal Weapon (1987)


Die Hard may be the most famous Christmas movie masquerading as an action film, but an equally-effective work of Christmas action entertainment came the year earlier with Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon. If Die Hard is the perfect application of the structure and payoff of 1980s action, Lethal Weapon is the perfect embodiment of the genre’s character appeal. Putting two mismatched characters at its centre, and propelling them into a plot involving black ops, the Vietnam War, and the drug trade, the film manages the neat trick of being wildly entertaining while also dealing with substantial themes couched in blockbuster heroics. What’s perhaps most impressive about Lethal Weapon aside from the thrills of its action is the potency of its human qualities. It is a film that cares deeply about pain, family, and the need to belong. As far as Christmas fare goes, its story about the need for friendship and family is as appropriate holiday viewing as any film ever marketed for the holidays.

Written by 1980s action film super-screenwriter (and avowed Christmas fan) Shane Black, Lethal Weapon is the ultimate buddy cop film. It follows the suicidally-dangerous Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and the by-the-book, newly-50-year-old Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) as they work to take down a drug ring comprised of former black ops vets from the Vietnam War. The plot is another example of Hollywood dealing with the hangover of the Vietnam War, but that narrative focus is mere window-dressing. The main focus of Lethal Weapon is the relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh.

Like all odd couples stories, Riggs and Murtaugh are superficially terrible fits as partners and Shane Black and director Richard Donner have a lot of fun highlighting their differences in the early sections of the film. Beyond the obvious, which is that Riggs is white and Murtaugh is black, there are also class differences between the two. In their introductory scenes, we see both Riggs and Murtaugh in their homes; Riggs lives in an RV on the beach, while Murtaugh boasts a nice upper-middle class home in the suburbs (his wife must have money, because I don’t know how a cop’s salary pays for the Murtaugh home and boat). Murtaugh has a big family, while Riggs is a widower with no children.

Once they’re on the job, we see how they react to situations differently. In the director’s cut, we watch as Riggs recklessly charges into the line of fire of a sniper shooting up a schoolyard; he has nothing to lose. Murtaugh, on the other hand, likes to play it safe, which makes him a bit crusty and awkward. For instance, when he first sees Riggs, he mistakes him for a suspect, and tackles him when he sees him with a gun. Both characters are familiar archetypes, with some intriguing character details added in, and their love-hate relationship is an appealing, if familiar, dynamic. Of course, they learn to work as a team and complete each other’s deficiencies. Riggs coaxes Murtaugh to embrace his inner badass, while Murtaugh teaches Riggs to trust other people. Most importantly, Murtaugh gives Riggs a family.

Of all the character details, none is more important that Riggs’s status as a widower. It’s not long into the film that we learn he lost his wife three years earlier. He hasn’t dealt with the loss well. He drinks too much. He’s reckless on the job. He gets into fights with coworkers and is a constant thorn in the side of his boss, the perpetually-exasperated Capt. Murphy (Steve Kahan, Richard Donner’s cousin). The police psychiatrist, Dr. Woods (Mary Ellen Trainor), labels him as potentially suicidal and it doesn’t take long to see proof of her diagnosis. Apart from charging into gunfire, baiting cocaine dealers, and jumping off a building handcuffed to a potential jumper, Riggs spends his evenings with the barrel of his handgun in his mouth, contemplating ending it all. After the jumper incident, Murtaugh calls what he thinks is Riggs’ bluff and tells him to end it all and stop wasting his time; as Riggs holds Murtaugh’s revolver in his mouth and goes to pull the trigger, Murtaugh blocks the hammer and realizes that Riggs isn’t kidding: “You’re not trying to draw a psycho pension. You really are crazy,” he tells him.

Riggs’ actions are over-the-top and melodramatic, but they’re driven by real pain, made achingly visceral by Mel Gibson in a terrific performance. Say what you will about the man in real life, but in 1987, fresh from Australia, he brought a physicality to Hollywood action films that was second-to-none. The scene of him sitting on the bed in his RV, crying over the wedding photos of him and his wife, his gun in his mouth, trying to find a reason not to pull the trigger, is heartbreaking. This is not a normal scene in a Hollywood movie; you’d never see anything like it in a movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even in the 1980s it was an oddity. Not only is it dark, but it’s also vulnerable, which is not something that macho leading men like Mel Gibson were ever supposed to be.

For all its absurdities regarding plot and action scenes and even the outsized personalities of its characters, Lethal Weapon takes suicide seriously and it takes Riggs’ pain seriously. That’s what makes it such an effective film beyond the entertaining banter and cool action scenes. Of course, if it wasn’t such a rigorously entertaining action film, the suicide scenes wouldn’t work. If they were presented in isolation, viewers would reject the scenes as melancholy and unseemly. But when presented alongside Riggs shooting a gunman hiding behind a Christmas tree or Murtaugh scolding his daughter for smoking pot, it doesn’t seem an aberration. Everything in the film is exaggerated and the absurd scenarios cover for the serious themes at play. The comedic banter and the one-liners and the thrilling chase scenes trick you into letting your guard down, and then the film surprises you with tenderness and vulnerability.

Now, what does this all have to do with Christmas?

Lethal Weapon’s status as a Christmas film is not despite its focus on suicide and pain, but because of it. For many people, Christmas is the loneliest time of the year. The idea that people kill themselves more often during Christmas time is a myth, but the pain and isolation that many people feel over the holidays is not. In Lethal Weapon, Riggs’ pain is accentuated due to its juxtaposition next to Murtaugh’s comfortable family life, just as a person’s loneliness in real life seems more insurmountable during a season when they’re constantly bombarded with images of family happiness and community and the warmth they’re supposed to feel during the holidays. Riggs is incapable of dealing with the pain on his own, but through his partnership with Murtaugh, he finds community and the strength to grow.

Thus, Lethal Weapon becomes about the re-establishment of family and the need for community and loving relationships in order to heal. The final scene in the film finds Riggs knocking on the door of the Murtaugh home on Christmas Day. Murtaugh answers and he hands Murtaugh a gift, which is the hollow point bullet he’d been saving to shoot himself with. He tells Murtaugh he doesn’t need it anymore, and Murtaugh invites him inside to join his family for dinner. The final shot is a wide angle of Riggs calling his dog, Sam, to come inside and Murtaugh grousing about what the dog will do to his cat. After all the gunfights in the desert and fistfights in the mud, the film ends on a domestic note, with two men sharing a meal over the holidays.

This is why it’s a Christmas movie. Secular Christmas movies like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Elf and even Die Hard are about the power of family and the need for community in times of trouble. Like these Christmas classics, Lethal Weapon is an ode to family and the stability it provides to those within it. It’s an exceptional film for its snappy dialogue and the muscular rhythms of its action scenes, but it’s the film’s genuine emotional stakes and its earnest exploration of depression and human relationships that give it a lasting appeal. There are plenty of Christmas movies and there are plenty of buddy cop movies, but few have the emotional honesty of Lethal Weapon, or its staying power. Its narrative may be pure fiction, but its emotions are anything but.

9 out of 10

Lethal Weapon (1987, USA)

Directed by Richard Donner; written by Shane Black; starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitchell Ryan, Tom Atkins, Darlene Love, Jackie Swanson, Traci Wolfe.