It has been almost 30 years since Lethal Weapon hit movie screens, in that time we’ve had 3 sequels, a ton of dead bad guys and more quips than you can shake a stick at. The Lethal Weapon reboot TV series is here, hoping to introduce the exploits of Riggs and Murtaugh to a whole new audience. So now that most fans of the original franchise are getting too old for this shit, I’m going to share with you my ranking of the Lethal Weapon movie series, from the worst to the best.
So starting with the worst we have…
I may have had some difficulty with the other rankings on this list but it was always clear to me that the worst spot was always going to be reserved for this one. In Lethal Weapon 4 Riggs and Murtaugh investigate a Chinese immigrant smuggling ring that connects to the larger conspiracy, involving a Chinese Triad making counterfeit money to buy back prisoners from a corrupt general. Riggs is about to become a father and uncertain whether or not he is ready to marry his girlfriend Lorna. Murtaugh is about to become a grandfather while also trying to protect the Hongs, an immigrant Chinese family. Chris Rock joins the cast as Sgt. Lee Butters, secretly married to Murtaugh’s daughter Rianne.
There are several reasons why I put this one here. One of the main strengths of the Lethal Weapon franchise has always been character continuity. The same characters always appear and they are always played by the same actors, right down to all three Murtaugh children. The result is that everyone always seemed very comfortable with their roles and with each other, making character personal relationships all the more believable. In Lethal Weapon 4 everyone is so comfortable with one another that it descends into laziness. They clearly abandon any pretense of making a thrilling and gritty action film that also happens to have some witty dialogue. Lethal Weapon 4 is nothing more than a sitcom, and once brilliant characters have had all depth stripped away from them in favour of cheap set ups and weak punchlines. Murtaugh, a once respected police officer with more than 30 years experience, is now the butt of everyone (but mostly Riggs’s) jokes. Riggs spends the movie veering maniacally between soul searching about whether marrying Lorna would be a betrayal of his first wife, torturing Murtaugh and putting him in danger for laughs, and engaging in casual bigotry at the expense of pretty much everyone. Leo Getz for most of the movie just seems to be there before turning up at the end to give a, frankly slightly disturbing, monologue about his childhood pet frog. This is the final nail in the coffin of a character once smart enough to come up with a tax-deductible way to launder half a billion dollars while scamming drug dealers at the same time. Chris Rock is basically just there to be Chris Rock, doing nothing more than following other characters around until they can shoehorn in a few moments for him to be Chris Rock, including a truly excruciating sequence of him ranting with Leo about cell phones.
The only saving graces of this movie are the action sequences, with tightly shot and visually dramatic set pieces, and Jet Li in his Hollywood debut as villain Wah Sing Ku. Li completely owns every scene he is in, even just standing to one side his intense stare doesn’t ooze malice but shines it out like a light bulb. This combined with awesome martial arts scenes make him a very credible bad guy, and his performance is the only one in the entire movie with any conviction. I have to be honest, by the time the finale rolled around I was pretty much jonesing for Li’s character to royally kick Riggs’s ass. Sadly the good guys had to win and Li had to lose, but not before a truly bizarre scene where Murtaugh is looking for Riggs and calls on Riggs to “will” him. The even stranger part of this is that it works, with Murtaugh somehow able to mentally connect with Riggs and find him underneath the water. The Lethal Weapon series often made use of the idea that good partners can communicate with each other sometimes without words but really? We’re giving Riggs and Murtaugh psychic powers now?
Lethal Weapon 4 ends with a trite, candy coated scene at the hospital where Riggs and Murtaugh welcome their new child and grandchild. Then, as a final insult to its audience, a picture montage over the credits of all the better Lethal Weapon movies you could have been watching instead.
Not quite as bad as Lethal Weapon 4 but still not great either it’s…
I know plenty of people like this movie so let me be clear, just because I’ve put this entry pretty low on this list that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. However, as enjoyable as Lethal Weapon 3 is it does have several pretty big problems. In Lethal Weapon 3 Riggs and Murtaugh are back and still causing ludicrous amounts of chaos and mayhem, however this time Murtaugh is just days away from retirement and Riggs has to contemplate life without him. With the help of a new addition, Rene Russo as Internal Affairs investigator Lorna Cole, Riggs and Murtaugh must stop a former cop turned arms dealer from flooding the streets with stolen guns loaded with armour-piercing ‘cop killer’ bullets.
This movie is really the point in the franchise where things began to get formulaic. In the first two movies, there was a balance between the comedic elements and the grittier segments. In 3 there was a swing more towards comedy and, as a result, the Lethal Weapon franchise seemed to lose its edge. This is a shame because there were some good strong concepts to work with here and it was clear in some parts what they were trying to do, even if they didn’t quite succeed in doing it. Having Murtaugh be the one dealing with a personal crisis instead of Riggs, after having had to shoot a teenager dead, really works and gives Danny Glover the chance to show the full range of his acting skill. The scene with Murtaugh at the boy’s funeral contrasts nicely with scenes of him drunk and anguished and then later angry and determined to dispense justice. Rene Russo is great as Lorna Cole, a smart and kick ass cop fully able to meet Riggs on his own level. The action scenes are bigger, more explosive, and there are more of them, so much so that they almost threaten to overshadow everything else.
Which brings me to the two biggest problems with Lethal Weapon 3, the strange choices in story structure and the characterisation of Riggs. In the first Lethal Weapon film Riggs was crazy and suicidal as a result of having little to live for after his wife’s death, we don’t see what he was like beforehand so we have no frame of reference for his character persona. By Lethal Weapon 3 it is clear that they have decided to make Riggs crazy and reckless as permanent character traits, which is fine, except in this movie he seems to have little to no regard for the safety of those around him. The movie opens with a car bomb in a basement car park, making Lethal Weapon 3 the first of the franchise to open with an event that has nothing to do with the case Riggs and Murtaugh pursue during the film. The bomb squad are on their way but Riggs enters the building, with Murtaugh reluctantly in tow. He then decides for no reason whatsoever that the bomb squad never gets there on time, despite them having quite literally saved Murtaugh’s ass from a toilet bomb in Lethal Weapon 2. Riggs then decides to attempt to disarm the bomb himself by cutting one of the primary wires. He doesn’t tell upstairs or seek clearance from his commanding officer before doing this, and he is so casual about the whole thing, like he thinks he’s trying to disable the car alarm so he can hot wire it after losing his car keys. What’s really strange that is that Riggs seems to completely forget all his Special Forces training, in the first movie he was able to examine a bomb device and determine that it had mercury switches and was therefore potentially the work of mercenaries, now he’s just going to cut a random bomb wire on a hunch just because. What’s worse is that Murtaugh just stands there, perplexed and impotent, while Riggs endangers the lives of everyone around the building.
This self-centred characterisation of Riggs is further compounded by the way in which the story is structured. Being a romantic pairing requires that Riggs and Lorna spend the requisite amount of time forced together, hating each other, moving on to grudging respect and then attraction. The story chooses to put those scenes right after Murtaugh is forced to shoot dead a fifteen-year-old boy, and a friend of his son no less. The result is that Riggs appears to go off on a jolly and get laid with another cop while his partner and best friend is at home grief-stricken and tormented. This is made worse by the fact that when Riggs does decide to check on Murtaugh, only after Rianne asks him too, his reaction to Murtaugh’s pain is to immediately berate him for being selfish and not considering how much his retirement would affect Riggs’s life. Wow Riggs, for some reason you’re suddenly a real douchebag.
There are other, smaller issues too. Stuart Wilson as villain Jack Travis is ok but somewhat cartoony. We’re given little or no insight into his character, he spends his time mugging and chewing the scenery. Leo Getz is also back, and although he gets a couple of good lines it is pretty strange that he is there at all. He was a witness Riggs and Murtaugh were assigned to protect, there is no reason at all why they would have remained in touch after the assignment was complete. In truth Leo’s only real purpose in Lethal Weapon 3 is to serve as exposition fairy and vehicle for Murtaugh and Riggs to locate the villain, conveniently remembering him from some villain party he’d attended.
Despite its problems Lethal Weapon 3 is not really a bad film, for the most part it’s fun and hits all the right notes as far as action is concerned. It just seems all rather offhand. Everyone is going through the motions, and as a result the movie never really gets above mediocre.
Now here’s where I get slightly controversial, in the number two spot we have…
Now I know this is perhaps the biggest debate here, whether or not the first Lethal Weapon film is the best. But this is my list and as far as favourites go, although it is an excellent film, Lethal Weapon sits very firmly and comfortably in second place.
In Lethal Weapon sensible cop and family man Roger Murtaugh is dismayed to be partnered with Martin Riggs, Special Forces trained, crazed, and potentially suicidal after the death of his wife. Together they investigate the murder of the daughter of a man Murtaugh served with in Vietnam, uncovering a cabal of corrupt former military that are now importing and selling heroin. Lethal Weapon is where it all begins and so its primary purpose is to set up the situation and introduce everyone involved. The movie does this in as efficient a method as possible, opening with a girl jumping out of a balcony window and falling to her death. This is followed immediately by well-crafted scenes for each of the two protagonists, packing as much background and character information into them as possible without it feeling forced. The result is that both Riggs and Murtaugh feel complete as characters, they both have fully formed backgrounds and are able to draw upon past experience and knowledge. It doesn’t seem as if they were born the moment the film began.
This is down to the excellent script and fantastic performances, particularly from both leads. Danny Glover is always a solid bet, having perfected his ability to play the likeable everyman, and to watch Lethal Weapon is to be reminded of why we all fell in love with Mel Gibson in the first place. In this movie Riggs is a broken man, desperately looking for a reason to continue his existence and painfully aware that nobody around him is all that sympathetic. Gibson has Riggs throwing out pain in waves, and nobody wants to be anywhere near him. He spends the movie wild-eyed and looking like a bomb just waiting for an excuse to go off, yet the moments of him being welcomed by Murtaugh’s family are very endearing and the scene where Riggs contemplates suicide is almost heartbreaking in its conviction. As far as action goes Lethal Weapon is a taut and gritty movie, it doesn’t stop and there is no unnecessary padding. Absolutely nothing happens in this movie that doesn’t need to happen.
The villain in this movie is former General turned heroin smuggler Peter McAllister, and Mitchell Ryan does a decent job of giving us someone to hate. However, the real bad guy that everyone remembers is mercenary turned henchman Mr. Joshua, played by Gary Busey. One look at Busey, with his bleached hair and bug eyes, and you know you’re in for a treat. Mr. Joshua spends the movie wearing a facial expression so painfully restrained that it seems like he’s desperately trying to keep his own skull from escaping. Watching him duke it out with Riggs on Murtaugh’s lawn is a perfect movie climax, however, it does raise a plot question. Riggs and Murtaugh knew that Mr. Joshua would go to Murtaugh’s house to kill his family, and so they set a trap for him. So why did they station those two patrol officers outside? And why didn’t they warn them that Mr. Joshua was Special Forces trained? As it is Mr. Joshua arrives at the house, crazed and thirsty for blood, and the first thing he does is shoot those two poor officers dead. Hey, Riggs and Murtaugh? That was kinda your fault, just saying.
These days the buddy cop movie is a cliché, complete with tropes and conventions. In this Lethal Weapon was one of the architects, taking an idea already in use and fine-tuning it. Both characters are expertly crafted and so you root for both Riggs and Murtaugh in equal measure. You also understand the bond that is forged from having to trust and rely on each other to survive. This is a surprising amount of depth for an action movie, and one of the reasons why Lethal Weapon had such an overall influence on the genre.
And so in the number one spot, it could only be…
I know it may seem strange to some that I put this one here in first place rather than Lethal Weapon. However. the reasons for this are simple, what Lethal Weapon created? Lethal Weapon 2 perfected.
Having been partners for a year, Riggs and Murtaugh must pursue a corrupt South African diplomat while trying to protect a federal witness. It sounds simple, but it really isn’t. The plot of Lethal Weapon 2 is surprisingly complex. It also draws attention to some of the biggest issues of the day, from Apartheid to safe sex. These are pretty brave choices for an action film, especially a sequel. On top of that? Everything in this movie works, the action scenes are well executed. The dialogue pops, with Lethal Weapon 2 being easily the funniest in the franchise. The wit is well balanced, not overshadowing the grittier elements. However, that isn’t really that different from the first movie, so what is it about Lethal Weapon 2 that sets it apart?
Primarily? It’s the villains.
Joss Ackland as South African consul-general Arjen Rudd and Derrick O’Connor as creepy henchman Pieter Vorstedt excel in giving us the beyond ruthless bad guys that we absolutely love to hate. It’s not even that clear what their plan is, we just know it involves gold coins, a ton of drug money and openly racist South African officials hiding behind their diplomatic credentials while being extremely bad. Every interaction that Riggs and Murtaugh have with them is tense and even the scenes with just Rudd and Vorstedt interacting with one another are really enjoyable to watch, you’ll never feel the same way about a sheet of plastic on the floor ever again. They are also a very credible threat, not only are they heavily armed and immune to prosecution, they also manage to take out half the police department before Riggs and Murtaugh can bring them down. And these were no rookies, we’re talking Dean Norris i.e Hank from Breaking Bad, Jenette Goldstein i.e Vasquez from Aliens, and Grand L.Bush i.e one of the Agent Johnsons from Die Hard.
The other reason why Lethal Weapon 2 has the edge is the introduction of Leo Getz, crooked accountant and federal witness that Riggs and Murtaugh are assigned to protect. Now I know what you’re thinking, haven’t I spent every other entry on this list complaining about this guy? Well yes, in other sequels in the franchise Leo Getz is a bit of a pain, really on account of script writers feeling that he has to be there and struggling to find things for him to do. However, in Lethal Weapon 2? Leo Getz serves a genuine purpose. Having Riggs and Murtaugh spend the whole movie sniping at each other would have been too similar to the first movie. Leo Getz is meant to serve as an irritation to both men, and someone they can team up against. In fact, he is so perplexing to Riggs and Murtaugh that they don’t really seem to be that interested in protecting him, they spend the second act dragging him into dangerous situations or flat out abandoning him. Murtaugh even insists that Leo wait alone in his car while he goes inside his house to follow up a hunch, allowing the bad guys to kidnap Leo and beat him within an inch of his life. Forget staying in touch, they’re lucky Leo didn’t demand their badges before suing the entire LAPD.
That’s not to say that Lethal Weapon 2 doesn’t have problems, some of the choices the villains make don’t really make much sense. While it is really fun to watch Murtaugh going off in the South African embassy, the fact remains that Riggs breaks into an embassy (technically foreign soil) threatens a high-ranking diplomat and shoots his pet fish. Instead of sending helicopter gunships to murder Riggs, Rudd could have easily demanded that he be fired or even arrested. Patsy Kensit is squeezed in as consulate secretary Rika van den Haas, a love interest for Riggs, and while it is interesting to see a more loved up dimension to Riggs, unfortunately, the character of Rika is pretty boring. She isn’t given very much to do and it’s not a great performance from Kensit. Her accent is appalling, often sounding more Australian than Afrikaans. Rika dies in the third act, presumably to provide motivation for Riggs in the final confrontation with the bad guys. However, it seems as if the filmmakers were aware of Rika’s faults as a character, and lost faith that the audience would buy her death being enough to trigger Riggs, so they have main henchman, Vorstedt, inform Riggs that his wife’s death was no accident and that she was killed in a botched hit attempt in which Riggs was the actual target. While this does have the desired effect of unleashing Riggs in all his murderous glory, it does render Rika’s character somewhat pointless. It also makes Vorstedt look incompetent, what kind of hitman doesn’t check if the target is in the car before running it off the road?
These issues aside, Lethal Weapon 2 is a joy to watch. It’s clear that they understood everything that worked about Lethal Weapon and made those elements the star of the show. The banter, the wit, the stunts and fireworks, they all exist in perfect balance and are tightly and competently woven together until they flow like silk thread. This all culminates in one of the most thrilling action finales of all time, topped off by, what I still consider, the best one-liner in the entire franchise.
So that is my ranking of the best and worst Lethal Weapon films. Disagree? Let me know in the comment section. In the meantime, the Lethal Weapon TV series first airs on Fox on September 21, and we’re all hoping that the magic is back and this time? Here to stay.