Director: Richard Donner
Screenplay: Shane Black
Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Darlene Love
30 years is a long time for a genre to grow. In the case of the action-comedy, it seems nowadays that the two don’t seem to blend quite as well as they used to. Pick one from the listings today and, for the vast majority of the time, it’s a Melissa McCarthy billed fare that’s part speedily cut action and part stand-up comedy routine. The two sides of the film never fuse completely. They miss the key ingredients that older action-comedies had, of the likes perhaps of Jackie Chan or, as today’s celebrated film proves, Shane Black.
Shane Black is a name that defined this genre, beginning 30 years with his screenplay for buddy cop movie Lethal Weapon. It was Black’s first movie, but it was certainly not the first buddy cop movie. Yet, Lethal Weapon will go down in history as the finest buddy flick ever made.
A sparkling example of what not only buddy films but action-comedies in general could do, Lethal Weapon stands out because it took the elements of the genre that we knew and loved, and fine-tuned them to a laser-sighted weapon of entertainment. Each joke hit its mark perfectly, the chemistry between the zany, mulletted Martin Riggs and safe, homely Roger Murtaugh sizzled, and the action was deadly and fun. Yet, inbetween all of this noise, it was Shane Black’s signature nose for character that really managed to sell the movie as one of the finest in its genre. Each character had their nuance and their moment, settled inbetween the jazz-tones of Michael Kamen’s soulful soundtrack. It was a revelation: An action movie where the audience felt they were allowed to care.
Sure, it’s been a long time since Mel Gibson’s madcap antics have been considered comedic (or even mildly acceptable for that matter) but there’s no denying that his portrayal of Martin Riggs made music out of Black’s already fantastic script. His suicidal scene set to a Christmas episode of the Looney Tunes was performed in one take and earned applause from the stunned crew – and rightly so. He brought a humanity to a man who wasn’t just the badass cop of the 80s, but a man who had lost his wife. It was a humanity that carried through every subsequent character of the series, from Joe Pesci’s hilarious and fast-talking Leo Getz to Rigg’s future sweetheart Lorna Cole.
There’s an argument to be made that the series didn’t maintain its greatest as Richard Donner dragged it through a third and even fourth go-around (to Black’s own dismay), but the first movie didn’t just spark a slew of sequels, knock-offs and spoofs: it inspired a legacy. It set a standard for the importance of script and performance in action movies that seems to have been forgotten in today’s mountainous hordes of dry, repetitive action films. It might be considered a low-brow genre, but the action movie is an underestimated medium. Difficult to make work (taking into consideration the even shorter amount of time that the audience spends connecting with characters, the need for a past pace and a sufficiently driving motive), it’s even trickier to throw comedy in there. And still, Shane Black and co. proved it to be possible over 30 years.
So the next time you take a trip to the cinema for another action disappointment, don’t stand for a mediocre one. Or, better yet, perhaps go to the latest offerings that writer Shane Black has created – you won’t be disappointed. It seems, after all, at least he isn’t too old for this shi-
If you want to see more of Riggs and Murtaugh, tune into FOX’s new TV show of Lethal Weapon!