80s Movie Challenge Week 48: Lethal Weapon (1987)

Welcome back to #80sMC pals! It’s that time again where we delve back into our favourite decade. We’re getting close to the end of our Year Long 80s Movie Challenge, and with only three to go Paul Childs kicks off our festive trilogy of 1980s Christmas movies with 1987’s Lethal Weapon.

One of my great pleasures writing these 80s themed retrospectives has been reliving the times I first saw so many of them. However, I’ve already told you about the night I first saw Lethal Weapon way back in July when I wrote about Aliens for week 28, so please forgive me, especially if you’ve been following our #80sMC series closely and this story seems somewhat familiar.

I’ve spoken often in this series about my good friend Mez, who introduced me to so many wonderful films, and Lethal Weapon was one such film. My mum took us down to Anne’s Videos – the biggest VHS library in town – with an aim to hiring two films, one for us “kids” (although we were 14 by then and well into more grown-up films), and one for her and my dad. Although it was only open for a handful of years, Anne’s is such an important place in my upbringing. I can still remember where all the good films were – and many of the bad ones! I spent hours upon hours in there poring upon the shelves, taking a film down, putting it back, holding on to some for fear of it being taken and then having to choose. I used to ask for the posters from their window displays once they’d taken them down. Often they were not very good ones, but occasionally I got an absolute cracker for my bedroom wall, like the gigantic one-sheets I snagged of They Live and Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves.

And of course, there were the free magazines like Screens and Flicks. I used to flick through them, circling ones I was interested in with a pencil, and tearing out and keeping the particularly interesting looking ads. Those that weren’t used to cover school exercise books went on my wall – I had an entire wall covered in A4 movie posters, some of which I had seen, some I hadn’t, some I liked and some not so much – but all great-looking posters!

So we were struggling to choose a film, and nothing was taking my mum’s fancy whatsoever. That was when Mez handed us a box each saying “Try this”. For me, it was Aliens and for my mum, it was Lethal Weapon. Action films were not really my parents’ bag, but Mez insisted she’d enjoy it. When we got back to the house we watched Aliens first – and I loved it. My parents, however, did not. Both of them prefer a degree of realism in their films – if it could happen in real life, then they’re more likely to enjoy it.

Luckily Lethal Weapon ticked a lot of their boxes. It was based in the real world, it was exciting but what probably impressed them most of all was that it was also funny. After a false start (on my parents’ part at least), the movie night was deemed a success and Mez was sent on his way home with thanks from my mum and dad. We’ll meet Mez again and visit Anne’s Videos one more time in a couple of weeks when we wrap up our series with a rather large bang.

That night (which I still regard as probably the single most important nights of my movie-watching life) was around the same time I had first got into buying films on VHS. I told the tale of my first ever (underage) video purchase back in February for our look at The Terminator. One Sunday a few weeks later, I was flicking through the supplements that came in the weekend papers when I came across an ad I had seen many, many times before but never paid any heed.

It was a full-page advertisement for Britain’s Video Club (as it was called at the time – it would go on to change its name to Britannia in the 1990s). The ad promised four full-price films on VHS for only £9.99. In 1989 that was normally the price of one film. I scanned row upon row of tiny movie thumbnails when I spotted a familiar one… Of course, it was Lethal Weapon. And so began the lengthy process of persuading my parents to sign up to the club – you had to be eighteen or I would have done it myself. By 1989 I was working Saturdays at a petrol station and doing a paper round on Sundays (delivering the aforementioned overly heavy weekend newspapers with their abundance of additional magazines) and could easily afford the commitment to six additional full-price movies over two years. Although they were reluctant, I did eventually persuade them to fill the form in and join the club on my behalf. I selected my four films and of course, before you ask, I can still remember what they were:

Highlander, Lethal Weapon, Hard To Kill, Warlock

I couldn’t tell you what the other six were. By the time my two-year membership was up, I had close to a hundred films on VHS and they all kind of merged into one. What I can tell you for definite is that it was NOT the 1990 Clint Eastwood mismatched buddy cop movie The Rookie (which took more than a hint of inspiration from Lethal Weapon). No, I clearly recall walking to Woolworths in town to buy that one and being outraged at discovering that, thanks to the 1991 VAT increase from 15% to 17.5%, the cost of a VHS movie had gone up from £9.99 to £10.99. Now I’m no mathematician, but I know that’s more than a 2.5% increase. Films should have cost around £10.22 after that rise. I’d planned on having enough for the film, a can of Irn Bru and a bag of Nice ‘n’ Spicy Nik Naks to munch on the way home but I left with just the film. Not that I am bitter about it almost 30 years on…

But enough of that nostalgic tomfoolery! This is supposed to be the introduction to our Festive Trilogy! So let’s get one thing out of the way. Lethal Weapon IS a Christmas movie. It’s set at Christmas time and while it doesn’t act as a major plot point, Christmas is ever-present throughout the film; we meet Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) busting three drug dealers in a Christmas tree lot; his depression is heightened by the festive period (he even alludes to it when trying to talk down a potential jumper from a rooftop); there’s a running joke about Roger Murtaugh’s (Danny Glover) wife’s cooking ruining Christmas dinner; Mrs Murtaugh herself is played by Darlene Love who is perhaps best known for her Phil Spector produced versions of the Christmas classics Marshmallow World and Christmas (Baby Please Come Home); characters often greet each other with “Merry Christmas”; even the bad guy (Gary Busey) begins to display Scrooge-like behaviour towards the end. Yes, a rich vein of Yuletide spirit runs right through this film’s very heart.

And then there is that opening…

After a jaunty guitar riff introduces Bobby Helms’ version of Jingle Bell Rock, the film’s title card fades in and we zoom high over Los Angeles. As we soar over the area we get closer and closer to a large circular condominium block (International Tower in Long Beach, film location fans!), circling it and getting closer and closer until the jolly music fades into Michael Kamen’s doom-laden score. We move gingerly into the penthouse apartment, which is decked out in Christmas decorations and see a semi-naked girl lying on a sofa. It’s a remarkable shot done entirely by an incredibly talented (or brave) helicopter pilot and a cinematographer with a very steady hand. These days that would be achieved by either CGI or a drone controlled by a technician at ground level – neither of which were of a sufficient standard for that kind of shot when this was filmed in 1986.

Speaking of the music – the duties were shared three ways between Kamen who provided the orchestration, Eric Clapton whose blues-heavy licks reflected the maverick and depressive attitudes of Riggs and David Sanborn’s jazzy saxophone, representing the more easy-going, relaxed Murtaugh. Clapton here riffs on his successful soundtrack (also with Kamen) from the 1985 BBC political thriller Edge Of Darkness, which I watched fairly recently and noted the rather striking similarities between that show’s theme tune and the piece Meet Martin Riggs. Originally the score was only credited to Kamen and Clapton, but, realising the weight of his contribution, Sanborn’s name was added by producers to the credits of the remaining three films (and he has been retroactively added to subsequent releases of the first movie and its soundtrack).

I watched Lethal Weapon again in preparation for this earlier in the week. I didn’t need to. I know if off by heart, having seen it so many times. I still enjoy it every time – the relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh, evolving from hatred to begrudging partnership and eventually close friendship is always a joy to behold. However, as with many of our 80s Movie Challenge films (Heathers, The Breakfast Club, Fatal Attraction), there is a modern-day caveat. You have to watch this film as a product of its time and treat it as such. Riggs, while being portrayed as the troubled hero on one or two occasions, in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments, displays some really quite repulsive attitudes. Sadly, casual racism and homophobia are both a part of Riggs’ dialogue. Maybe this was a product of Shane Black’s script, maybe it’s from Gibson’s ad-libbing, but either way, it’s hard to miss, and difficult to stomach so proceed with caution if you struggle to get past the “It was a different time” argument.

What Gibson and Black do deliver both convincingly and sensitively, however, is a believable portrayal of a damaged man struggling to deal with a severe mental illness. The remaining films in the series, to their detriment, slowly descend into playing Riggs’ psychoses for laughs (Lethal Weapon 3 is the absolute nadir of this), but some mental health commentators have noted that, based on the first film, Riggs does indeed realistically display many of the symptoms associated with bipolar disorder or manic depression.

On a lighter note to end, one other thing which rather humorously ages Lethal Weapon (and these two things aside, it has aged exceptionally well) is the technology. Not computers or cars, which of course look older – you’d expect that in a thirty-three-year-old movie (this film is now as old as White Christmas was in 1987 – how old do you feel now?) – but what really dates Lethal Weapon to the late eighties is the mobile phone Roger uses towards the end of the first act, as he speaks to the police psychiatrist Dr Woods (Mary Ellen Trainor) about Riggs’ fragile mental state. Just look at the size of that battery pack!

If you can overlook Lethal Weapon‘s one misstep, you could do far worse than add this exciting, heartfelt, thrilling and funny adventure to your annual festive line-up.

Come back next week for our penultimate 80s Movie Challenge as our pal Andrew Lyall (from the YouTube channel Grumpy Andrew’s Horror House) tells us about the time he enjoyed observing the reactions of someone else watching a classic 1984 Christmas movie for the first time.

Turn on all the lights, check all the closets and cupboards, look under all the beds… for Gremlins!

Paul Childs, Andrew Lyall and Jane Roberts, as well as writer Libby Harris, podcaster and folklore expert Icy Sedgwick, Bram Stoker nominated author Gemma Amor and Jed Shepherd, creator of this year’s smash horror movie HOST, will each be reading a spooky tale at the Zoom based Night Of Ghost Stories For Christmas – a festive fright-fest on Friday 18th December at 7.30 pm (GMT) which promises to be a good night, and is also in aid of Multiple Sclerosis Society.

At the time of writing tickets, costing £5.50 each were still available and you can get yours here.

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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