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Director Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon series are the quintessential buddy cop action movies across the '80s and '90s. The team of Mel Gibson as Detective Martin Riggs and Danny Glover as Roger Murtaugh basically defined the trope of the old/new cop, by-the-book/wildcard partners that come together to solve the crime and take down the bad guys as they argue with each the whole time about the right way to do things.
Mel Gibson plays the standard “cop that plays by his own rules,” while Danny Glover is the tired, crusty old veteran that just wants to buy a boat and go fishing in retirement. Together, they make an unbeatable team on the streets and in our hearts.
Well, at least for two movies they do. Maybe three if you are being generous. The fourth was… well… not so good. So, assuming the 4th is the 4th in the series and the 4th in our hearts, where do the other three fit? Let's go over that ranking of the Lethal Weapon movies now.
4. Lethal Weapon 4
What makes the Lethal Weapon series so much better than your standard buddy cop action dramedy is its charm, but sadly, Lethal Weapon 4 lacks that almost completely. So much of the movie seems forced and most of the actors seem like there are there mostly for the paycheck. Director Richard Donner and his team had a formula that they knew worked and they followed, forgetting about the little details that made the earlier movies in the series great.
The action is still top-notch, make no mistake about that. Like they had done in the past, Lethal Weapon 4 introduces a couple of big name actors into the cast, one of whom is Jet Li in his American debut. He is the lone bright spot in the an otherwise lazy movie, and his fight choreography with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the climatic fight scene that is the high point (and only really great part) of the movie.
The rest of the movie is just a retelling of the same kind of story as the first, with Chris Rock as the other big named added, but wow, does he chew the scenery. It’s like Chris Rock doing an over-the-top SNL impression of Chris Rock. He has some funny moments, because it is Chris Rock after all, but the whole character is simply wedged in just to give Rock some room to essentially do a standup routine.
Basically, Lethal Weapon 4 takes everything that made the first three movies charming and sucks all the charm out, recycles the jokes, and forces new characters on audiences in an attempt to cover for the indifference towards everything else.
3. Lethal Weapon 3
The third installment of the Lethal Weapon series immediately tried to capitalize on the hilarious performance by Joe Pesci as Leo Getz in Lethal Weapon 2. What audience “get” instead is way too much “Getz,” ok? When the character was introduced in Lethal Weapon 2, it was the perfect addition of a third voice to the banter between Riggs and Murtaugh, but the dynamic wears thin almost immediately in Lethal Weapon 3.
Just like wedging Chris Rock into Lethal Weapon 4, that’s how Joe Pesci’s Leo Getz feels in 3. The character was so popular Lethal Weapon 2, the creators of 3 tried to find way to write a story that involved way too much of him doing things that were unnatural for the character as audiences knew him from Lethal Weapon 2. Instead of being a major annoyance as a criminal that Riggs and Murtaugh are forced to babysit, now he’s now kind of their partner? Why in the world would they deal with this annoying character if they didn’t have to?
Like all the movies in the series, the action sequences are great; there are lots of explosions, chases and fight scenes. Mel Gibson acting crazy as a loon gets a little grating though. Gibson’s character, Riggs, changes from being a genuinely suicidal kind of crazy in the first two Lethal Weapon movies to cartoony "Cuckoo For Coco Puffs” kind of crazy in this one, and the movie suffers greatly for it.
This probably should have been the end of the series as it was clearly running on fumes, but the HUGE box office success ($350 million on $30 million budget) basically guaranteed a 4th one. Not even Rene Russo could save Lethal Weapon 3.
2. Lethal Weapon
The OG Lethal Weapon is a masterpiece of an 1980s action comedy. Any list of the best action flicks of the '80s usually has it at or near the top, alongside other classics likes Die Hard and Predator.
Lethal Weapon has got the most realistic premise, with cops investigating the murder of a prostitute. Riggs’ suicidal behavior pretty terrifying, as Mel Gibson really puts in a great performance and his craziness is actual insanity, and not just a whacky version of insincere goofy craziness that the character would eventually evolve into.
Lethal Weapon still holds up too. It’s definitely an '80s movie, but the plot is timeless, as is that classic combination of a tired old cop getting teamed with a younger loose cannon that come together in the end to become the perfect team. There really aren’t any flaws in the movie at all.
Lethal Weapon 2
Really, you can’t go wrong with picking the original Lethal Weapon or Lethal Weapon 2 as the best in the series. They are both awesome movies. 2 had a much bigger scope that was put to great use with really awesome action scenes, like the helicopter attacking Riggs’ beach trailer home, and the opening car (and foot) chase scene is a total classic.
It has all the classic tropes that make the series great. Murtaugh wants to retire, Riggs wants to be crazy, and for the first time we meet Leo Getz (Pesci), and he is truly hilarious in this one. The character is over the top and annoying, but in the perfect amount. Including his character makes sense in this one, and Pesci puts in one of the best performances of his career, right up there with My Cousin Vinny and Goodfellas.
Lethal Weapon 2's not perfect, as the plot is pretty out there for local cops to be going after international drug dealers trading in South African Krugerrands, which was illegal to do during Apartheid, but it doesn’t really matter. As much charm as the 4th movie lacked, this one has. It’s maybe the most fun you can have watching a movie from the era. The action is great, the acting is super, the dialog is snappy, and everyone seemed to be genuinely excited to be making the film. It’s as good as it gets in the series.
The Lethal Weapon franchise was one of those franchises that introduced the whole idea of making multiple sequels and building out a proper franchise. However, unlike many of the better franchises today that made have ups and downs throughout the various sequels or prequels, there is a clear downward trend after the first two.
While there was a clear monetary incentive by all the major players in the franchise to make the third and fourth installments, artistically, they just don’t hold a candle to the first to, so unless you REALLY like Mel Gibson act like a complete fool, Lethal Weapon 3 and Lethal Weapon 4 are not must-see movies, but the first two definitely are.