1987 in Film – Lethal Weapon

Release Date: March 6th
Box Office: $65,192,350

Every now and then there comes along a Definitive Film. There may have been films of the same genre before it but when this film arrives it defines the genre, like how Lethal Weapon (1986) defined the buddy cop action genre.

Now, as stated, it’s not like this genre didn’t exist before this year. The buddy film stretches back to the early days of Hollywood, the Dirty Harry series brought in elements before becoming a proper sub-genre with 48 Hrs (1982).

Now that film was a huge success mainly on the back of the pairing of the leads: a white hot Eddie Murphy and professional curmudgeon Nick Nolte. That clash of styles made the, let’s be honest, straightforward story seem vastly superior thanks to the chemistry at the centre of it.

Lethal Weapon similar approach to its casting with the two leads being Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

Of the two neither one was what you would call a bankable star. Whilst Gibson was the star of the Mad Max series the last film in that series, the big push to a mainstream market, didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Glover was making name as a dependable supporting character actor.

Put them together? Magic.

Gibson is the titular Lethal Weapon; a Vietnam vet named Martin Riggs now in the LA police he’s a cop on the edge since the death of his wife. Glover is Roger Murtagh, a by the book cop waiting on his upcoming retirement. The two become partners and are called in to investigate a murder of the daughter of one of Murtagh’s old friends. Suffice to say, it’s not as straightforward as the case initially looks.

So why did this hit so big? Why did it become a influential? It wasn’t the biggest film of the year, in fact it wasn’t even the top grossing buddy cop movie of the year. But there it remains, looming over the next decade of action films.

An unleashed Mel Gibson probably helps. His signature role leading up to this was Mad Max himself, a great role but one that was stripped back to the bare bones. Riggs is pretty much the opposite of Max, he probably says more words in his first scene that Max does across three films.

It also helps that those words were written by Shane Black. As a debut film it’s tough to beat, from the great characters to the action scenes. He would go on to have his ups and downs but in this film he creates a masterpiece of structure and plot. Constantly moving forward without losing sight if it’s characters, it forms a template that many would try to imitate.

But none would quite get the same chemistry. There is just something about Glover and Gibson that just works. The pairing would last another four films in the series, just about, but it’s hard to top the first film.

Was it’s influence all good? Probably not, definitive can quickly become derivative when it’s copied without realising what made it so good in the first place. But thats okay, because all the imitators just underline how good Lethal Weapon is.

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