Lethal Weapon 4

lethal-weapon-4“We are not getting too old for this shit!” chant Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon 4, echoing Glover’s oft-repeated catchphrase. Uh, yes you are, guys. The very definition of a meaningless, mindless summer sequel, LW4 is fairly painless for about its first hour. After that, you may have to remind yourself what the plot is supposed to be about. And then you may have to remind yourself why you bothered to remind yourself. This is easily the most sketchily written of the Lethal Weapon movies, obviously improvised on the set whenever possible (a ploy that fizzles more often than not).

There was really no reason to make a fourth entry in this once-honorable action series — there was barely a reason to make the third one, either (except that it introduced Rene Russo, a welcome dose of estrogen in this testosterone-drunk series). For me, the perpetually near-retired Roger Murtaugh (Glover) and psycho Vietnam vet Martin Riggs (Gibson) hit their stride, and their peak, in 1989’s satisfyingly whiplash LW2. Since then, Murtaugh and Riggs have coasted on our affection for them; Riggs isn’t even crazy any more — in LW4 he’s so mellow he seems ready to host a landscape-painting show on PBS.

Director Richard Donner (who has helmed all four Lethal Weapons) is coasting, too. He stages one good wacky car chase on an L.A. freeway, and it’s stupidly enjoyable while you’re watching it. But afterwards you may recall the movies it cribs from — Raiders of the Lost Ark, a similar chase in LW2 — and you also may feel bone-tired of car chases. And there’s never any real threat or danger in the action scenes. By now, Riggs and Murtaugh are so well-loved that you know Donner isn’t going to kill off either of them.

The Lethal Weapon movies have always thrown in some hapless attempt at social relevance amid all the cartoonish brutality — we had South African villains in LW2, a gun-runner providing weapons to South Central kids in LW3, and in LW4 we have a Chinese Mr. Big (Jet Li, the latest Hong Kong star to dip his toe into Hollywood waters) who smuggles Asian immigrants into Los Angeles only to enslave them and force them to work in his counterfeit-cash operation. One step forward, two steps back: Just as Mulan comes out and Asian-Americans thought it was safe to go to the movies, along comes LW4to revive the old Yellow Peril. Jet Li is impressive here, but his moves left me wanting to see him in his undiluted Hong Kong glory, not in weak Hollywood stuff like this.

Russo returns as Riggs’ detective sweetheart Lorna, who is now pregnant and therefore excused from most of the boy-boy action. (She does pack a mean kick despite being nearly nine months along — any women out there care to comment on the physical verisimilitude of this?) Joe Pesci also returns as the motormouth Leo Getz, now an inept private eye who seems to exist only to expound nasally on a variety of irrelevant topics. Series newcomer Chris Rock, as a hot-headed younger detective, joins Pesci in a rather amusing dual rant about cell phones, but both men wear out their welcome fast. They both start at a high pitch and never let up — they’re like duelling car alarms. Meanwhile, Glover and especially Gibson sit back in most of their improvised scenes and goof off; some of the goofing off is funny, but most of it is just two overfamiliar partners trying and failing to wing it without a script.

Somewhere around the second hour, I lost interest. A minor character we’ve gotten to know and care about is killed, and it has no weight, no impact on his family or on the cop who has befriended him. I trust I will reveal nothing shocking by noting that the bad guy gets it in the end — does he ever not, in the LW series? — but Donner, having impaled him during a thunderstorm, misses his chance to send the villain off in grand fashion with a well-aimed bolt of lightning. He misses a lot of chances; he prefers to kick back and relax. But what’s the point of a relaxed Joel Silver action blockbuster? At Lethal Weapon 4, you’re either glad to be with these guys again, or you wish Warner Brothers would come up with a good story for them — or simply retire them. The schmaltzy final scenes, which surface from the depths of a pious family-values hell, would indicate that this sequel is meant to be our goodbye to Murtaugh and Riggs. If only it weren’t such a long goodbye.

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