Holy crap, it has been a quarter of a century since the first Lethal Weapon film. Its relatively low key (from my recollection) release in March of 1987 would presumably indicate that nobody had the idea that it would spawn three sequels and a whole host of imitators that would take their swing at realizing the same sort of formula that the first film hit upon so deeply. Ironically, the imitators' initial idea of putting together two somewhat eclectic yet marketable leads to a crappy script was something the Lethal franchise would run into in later films, but for now, the Lethal Weapon Collection celebrates the high-definition video release of all four films for the first time.
The first Lethal Weapon film was written by Shane Black, who went on to write and direct the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Richard Donner, no stranger to directing franchise movies after helming the first two Superman movies, would direct this film all of the sequels. The premise behind the film was interesting to say the least. Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson, The Beaver) is a narcotics detective who is both effective but racks up a body count or damage bill in every police endeavor thrown his way. In part this is deliberate because following the death of his wife in a car crash, his life remains shattered and he does police work with a death wish in mind, often wondering when he should kill himself. One day he is paired up with Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover, 2012), a homicide detective who just turned 50 and is contemplating retirement from the force. They are paired together to investigate a possible drug connection to the death of a prostitute, but the investigation turns out to be more involved than either expected.
That is not as important as what occurs over the course of their partnership as they learn more about each other, and each possesses more depth than the other expected. That helps make the magic of Lethal Weapon remains so special to people over the years. At first glance, Riggs may be a calculating copy with a possible desire for a psycho pension/discharge, but as Murtaugh learns more about him, he sees a guy who perhaps to some degree is lost and without direction. Arguably the film's best part remains in the scenes where Riggs comes home with Murtaugh and eats dinner with him and his family. In each other they see something that they perhaps want to be but aren't; Riggs perhaps wants to be a family man and Murtaugh wants to be a more efficient detective and through spending time with the other, their partnership and friendship both get stronger as a result, playing off of one another in an almost Abbott and Costello like pace with dialogue and improvisation.
This friendship, and the mining of some of Riggs' dark personal background is mined out a bit more in Lethal Weapon 2, which Jeffrey Boam wrote the screenplay for (and would go on to write the screenplay for the third film). Riggs and Murtaugh would come back, this time hot on the heels of a South African diplomat (Joss Ackland, The Hunt for Red October) who is hiding behind the immunity laws in the United States to be involved in smuggling and money laundering. They discover the latter when they are dispatched to safeguard Leo Getz (Joe Pesci, Goodfellas), an accountant who did many of the functions without knowing who he worked for. On an impromptu raid, Riggs runs into Rika (Patsy Kensit), who works at the South African consulate and his torn between her professional loyalties and her budding romance with Riggs.
In terms of the story, the relationship between Riggs and Rika is charming, and it helps that Ackland wraps both arms around his villain role in an almost Bobby 'The Brain' Heenan type of way, willing to put a thumb in the eye of his foe while retreating under the cover of the rules. On the opposite side of the coin, Pesci's performance as the feeble and helpless Getz is not necessarily amazing but it is lesser spoken note of genius. He takes all of the abuse that Riggs and Murtaugh can dish out and still comes back for me. And getting Riggs to relive some of the fleeting romantic happiness he did not have a chance to enjoy in the first film while his character was being established. Also in the first film, we spend more time in the Murtaugh household, which sometimes is good (as when Riggs talks about a gold pen that was found in the laundry) and other times (when Murtaugh's oldest daughter appears in a condom commercial) is fairly unimaginative.
We spend even more time with the family Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon 3. The gang is all back together, and Leo has even graduated to being a real estate agent. They combine forces to try and determine who is stealing firearms from the police evidence room and is reselling them to street dealers who in turn are selling them to gangs for their ever continuing skirmishes. This comes through personally for Roger when his son Nick's friend, is heavily immersed in the gang life and Roger wonders if Nick is going down that road as well. The man apparently behind these firearm thefts and sales is Jack Travis (Stuart Wilson, The Mask of Zorro), a detective with the force. Hot on Travis' heels is Lorna Cole (Rene Russo, The Thomas Crown Affair), who works with Internal Affairs and whom Riggs initially distrusts, but then falls in love with.
Getting the latter out of the way first, the dynamic between Gibson and Russo is entertaining and perhaps more importantly is harmless. There is no real emotional chord that strikes with you the more they interact. Riggs falls in love with a cop that is an awful lot like him, and the 'foreplay' of their inevitable love scene starts with a comparison of scars and injuries much in the vein of Jaws. But going back to the house, Murtaugh is wondering how fast his son is growing up, and combined with a passion to find out who is committing 'genocide' (his word) in the neighborhood, there is a certain degree of preachiness to the film's theme of being anti-gun. And that is saying something after seeing two previous films where Donner was willing to toss in messages (either blatant or overt) against apartheid, safe sex and tuna harvesting, to name a few. And considering the film's leads always seemed to paint a portrayal of anyone approaching the either in a touchy manner of being perhaps maybe kind of 'funny,' it is also a bit ripe. It is easy to see why people look at this film as the weakest link of the Quadrilogy, with a forgettable performance by Gibson, Murtaugh's crusade and an antagonist that lacks any real reason why we should hate him, and no, being a crooked cop does not hold up enough.
Others felt the same way I suppose, and for a fourth film to materialize, the thinking was to inject some new blood into the mix. And so they did in Lethal Weapon 4, along with deeming Russo as a regular (being a baby mama for Riggs), and retaining Pesci as Leo the private investigator. On the good guys side, Chris Rock (Death at a Funeral) is introduced as Lee Butters, a detective in the force who is more effusive in praising Roger than Roger is comfortable for. As part of the Murtaugh-Riggs (and to a lesser, self-deluded degree) Getz conglomerate, they are trying to find out who is bringing in Chinese citizens to America in barges like 1997 slave trades almost, with Jet Li (The Expendables) cast as Wah Sing Ku, a soft spoken Hong Kong crime boss who is high flying and butt-kicking.
Where the third film tended to be muddled and overly preachy, the fourth film (written by, among others, Smallville showrunners Alfred Gough and Milles Millar) is more aware for the characters that they are in the autumns of their lives, and Riggs acknowledging things his a lack of mobility and increased frailty being part of the equation. Along with this is the seeming sense by all involved that this is it (Murtaugh's been retiring for more than a decade at this point), so perhaps the time is right for all involved to pull the plug. In between some fight scenes involving Li that remain impressive now after so many years. Combined with some comic rants by Rock that make him almost like an urban version of Andy Rooney, the cast and crew ended on a nice, nostalgic and fond way without beating the dead horse that much further. Debates on whether it is the best ending may come up here and there, but the easiest in this case might have been the best.
Through the years and the money (the films have made more than $500 million domestically), Lethal Weapon helped create a genre all its own with taking two cops on opposite ends of a behavioral spectrum and gradually having them develop a friendship both on and off the job that had explosions and explosive jokes. Did it get a little gray and show a paunch over the course of four movies? Sure, but that may be part of the limitations of the material. It has generally held up over the course of time and for most remains one of those movies you stop and watch if it is on television.
The Blu-ray Disc:
All of the Lethal Weapon films are in high-definition and use the VC-1 codec for your entertainment, whether it is the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of the first film or the 2.40:1 of the remaining three. Not having seen the other films before I cannot speak as to whether the first and second films were reproducing the transfers on the prior Blu-ray releases or not, but I can say that I do not remember the films looking as good as they did when I first saw them. Image detail on closer shots like facial detail is sharp and easily discernible, though image detail tends to be lacking in the background. Film grain is present on each of the films, though there does appear to be minor bouts of DNR on the second and third films. Putting a gun to my head, I would score the first one a 3.0, the second one a 3.0, the third a 3.5 and the fourth film a 4.
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround for all films, with the results improving as each film goes from one period to the next. Directional effects even in the first film are present, while channel panning increases with each film, to the point where the fourth film is a cornucopia of sonic immersion, with low-end fidelity that permeates through the entire feature. And in quieter moments, dialogue is consistent and well-balanced through each of the films. Whether it is mirroring the slightly 'canned' nature of the soundtrack in the first film or the robustness of the last one, the Lethal Weapon series sounds good on the lossless tip. If scoring individually, I would lean for a 3/5 for the first film, 3.5/5 for the second and third films, and 4/5 for the fourth.
Before proceeding, I should note that the Lethal Weapon Collection houses the theatrical cuts only and does NOT include the Director's Cut of each film which was released in 2000. With that said, the good news is that all four films include commentary by Richard Donner. The bad news? Said commentaries are bland and dreadful, save for the fourth, which was a port from the standard definition version and included here). The first three films include someone with him in studio, presumably the DVD producer, whom he tells to ask questions about the movies that are playing, or else he's just going to watch them all as they play. In each film, he recounts how some scenes played out and addresses the political messages (of varying volume) that are communicated. He spots some of the trivial things like advances in technology, and talks about the introductions to the cast as each film rolls into the next. But the tracks themselves from the first to the third films drag on with him either watching the film or not presenting enough decent information when he is asked a question. Boo indeed. The track for the fourth includes Donner's assistant along with co-producer J. Mills Goodloe and is one where Donner has a great deal of recollection and is much more active is this than in any stretch of the other three commentaries. He talks about the story inspiration and recounts some of the process during the production. It is a shame none of the three tracks are even close in terms of information and entertainment, but such is life I suppose.
There are extras on each disc, culminating with some retrospective featurettes on a fifth disc. Breaking down each feature is quick and easy:
Lethal Weapon: 14 deleted and extended scenes (29:44), some of which are redundant, and there is more with Murtaugh's wife, played by Darlene Love. A trailer (1:27) is included, along with a music video (3:22) by Honeymoon Suite, which I can only describe as being very 1987.
Lethal Weapon 2: Three deleted scenes (4:12) that are easily forgettable. Along with a trailer (1:28), a "Stunts and Action Featurette" (3:45) sets up and looks at separate scenes with a chopper and in a car chase.
Lethal Weapon 3: Three deleted scenes (3:43) which are even more forgettable than the first, along with a video (5:01) to a song from Sting and Clapton. A teaser (1:36) and trailer (2:28) close it out.
Lethal Weapon 4: The big thing here is "Pure Lethal!" (30:32), a Glover-hosted piece which not only promoted the fourth film, but includes unique footage and outtakes not included on the other discs. Donner recalls how footage in the former was cut along with original endings as well, which I guess may explain his lack of any substance in the other commentaries? Other than that, a trailer (2:20) is the only other thing.
The fifth disc includes four featurettes that when played consecutively run just under two hours in total, include new (2010) interviews with the cast and crew and (in the case of the first two) focus on the first film's creation and legacy. "Psycho Pension" (23:50) starts with Black talking about the initial idea for the script and what he threw at it from a story perspective. He also gets into his style and process for the film and any relevant tweaks he made to it, and Donner talks about what he thought of the story as well. The cast, specifically Glover and Gibson, recall their initial thoughts of Donner and how they worked with him on set. The perspective from Warner executives is even thrown in to boot, and it is overall an impressive segment. From there, "A Family Affair" (29:33) includes more of the crew perspective from the stunt coordinators and production designers, and gets into some shot breakdown and reconstruction in the first installment. The crew also talks about their thoughts on Donner the director, and the stunt shots are recounted as well. This gives the crew a chance to reflect on the work of the late Dar Robinson, a well-known stuntman who the first film was dedicated to, and the fight rehearsals are talked about too. Another solid piece. "Pulling the Trigger" (29:46) examines at how the sequels/franchise evolved in the later installments and the original concepts for the sequels (the second one was set around Latin America) are remembered, along with the signature explosion scene in each subsequent film. The new cast talks about their casting and the older actors talk about their first reaction to the 'newbies.' There are quite a few bloopers and on-set goofing around that is included here, and the segment wraps up with the cast of the third film talking about what they got to come back for the fourth in a funny story. The last piece is "Maximum Impact" (22:28), which looks at how the fourth film was shot and Rock talks about his spot in the fourth film, and the challenges in the sequels from a production standard. The larger themes and the legacy of the franchise are recalled fondly to boot. Really bummed that Warner did not include Lethal Weapon 5 in this collection, but the extras disc is solid nonetheless.
The Lethal Weapon Collection packs all of the bullets and all of the explosions in between the laughs and fleeting poignant moments as nicely as one could expect. The first couple of films remain superb, but the last two drag the gravitas of the franchise as a whole down a bit. Technically the discs look good and sound a bit better, and from an extras perspective there are enough things here to keep you entertained. If you want all four films on Blu-ray this may be the best chance to do it, as I doubt there may be thoughts of making the titles standalone releases.