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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Han and Chewie. Batman and Robin. All of those are great silver screen "buddy" pairings, but none of them will ever come close to matching the magic captured by Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon series. With the small screen Fox reboot premiering this week, we found it timely and important to remind all of you action movie aficionados out there of one very important fact: even after all these years, Lethal Weapon continues to be the single greatest action franchise of all time. Allow me to explain.
The entire Lethal Weapon franchise is predicated on a very simple premise that audiences can quickly and easily understand: chaos vs. control. Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is a highly trained, loose-cannon cop with serious emotional trauma and a death wish. Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is a calm and cool, but ultimately cautious, veteran detective who wants to go home to his family at the end of the day. Despite their inherently antithetical nature, these men eventually find a synergy in their respective talents, and form one of the closest brotherly bonds in the history of cinema -- and they rack up a pretty stellar body count along the way.
I could spend this whole article talking about the action in Lethal Weapon, but honestly it speaks for itself. Over the course of four films, director Richard Donner crafted numerous stellar set pieces using practical effects that defy appropriate adjectives. Whether it's Riggs and Murtaugh trying to rescue Murtaugh's daughter from drug dealers in the original Lethal Weapon, or the glorious freeway chase in Lethal Weapon 4, each entry in this awesome series is a pulse-pounding example of how to craft an action sequence. The action in Lethal Weapon is some of the best carnage ever committed to film, but it's the commitment to character that elevates the franchise above all others.
Through Shane Black's expert creation of these two characters, we get a perfectly balanced silver screen partnership that's epitomized by the series' equally perfect balance of tone and style. In each movie, we see incredibly visceral action interspersed with hilariously tense banter, underscored by the real, raw emotional connection we feel with each of these characters. No other franchise has ever managed to create a pair of badass heroes like Riggs and Murtaugh who could kick some serious ass, but still come from a very understandable and empathetic emotional place. When Murtaugh berates Riggs, we laugh. When Riggs puts a gun to his head, we're scared.
Furthermore, the beauty of the Lethal Weapon franchise is that it never once lost sight of who Riggs and Murtaugh were as characters, and how their connection carried the franchise. Not many action franchises (sorry, Die Hard) can say that. In the criminally underrated Lethal Weapon 3, Riggs confronts a drunk, depressed Murtaugh about the latter's imminent retirement, and the two engage in a heartbreaking screaming match about how Roger's decision to retire affects both of them. It's not just about action and comedy; the weight of the previous movies unloads in one of Riggs' most emotional lines in the entire series:
We feel the power of that line because every Lethal Weapon movie takes what came before it, and builds upon it. The events of Lethal Weapon brought Riggs and Murtaugh together and gave Riggs something to live for. From there, the Murtaughs represent the single constant in Riggs' life -- from the death of Rika Van Den Haas in Lethal Weapon 2 to Riggs' guilt over falling in love with Rene Russo's Lorna Cole in Lethal Weapon 3. Finally, in Lethal Weapon 4, Murtaugh's own intuition and brotherly bond helps him find Riggs and save him from drowning after their final battle with Jet Li's Wah Sing Ku, and Riggs closes out a chapter of his life by finally marrying Lorna. It's catharsis in its purest form.
Of course, none of that great storytelling would've worked without true commitment from the actors in the lead roles. The entire Lethal Weapon franchise was further separated from the score of countless imitators and competitors by the sheer commitment that Mel Gibson and Danny Glover brought to their respective roles. Over four movies, both actors sold their characters as equal parts human and badass. They pulled off insane stunts and kicked some serious ass, but they also screamed in agony and cried when things got tough.
Note the nuance in both of their performances; the way they both scream in agony as the bad guys torture them, the desperation in Riggs' tone as he kills Endo and the utter disbelief in Murtaugh's eyes as he realizes that he has a fighting chance to get his daughter out. Those are not performances you see from action icons like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone.
One could make a valid argument that there are standalone action movies better than Lethal Weapon -- the first Die Hard holds a 92% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes compared to the first Lethal Weapon's 84% Fresh rating -- but Lethal Weapon holds the distinction of consistency. Unlike the Die Hard franchise, there are no bad Lethal Weapon movies -- only varying degrees of good. At its worst, the Lethal Weapon franchised dipped to a respectable 52% with Lethal Weapon 4 in 1998, while the most recent Die Hard movie garnered a measly 14% Rotten rating. Plenty of single action movies can compete with Lethal Weapon, but no action franchise can come close to matching the consistency of Riggs and Murtaugh.
All that being said, that's just my take on the matter. What are your thoughts? Is Lethal Weapon the best action franchise of all time, or am I just too old for this shit? Let us know what you think in the comments section below!
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