The very definition of mainstream entertainment, Lethal Weapon 4 bends over backwards to deliver its family values message, including in the final reel not one but two gooey baby close-ups designed to set the whole theater murmuring with pleasure. “We’re family,” the cast actually shouts, in unison, at one Kodak moment. It’s a little disorienting to see this kind of lightheaded pleasantness butt up against the requisite stunts and squibs; maybe director Richard Donner considers it a countervailing force against such mayhem.
More than anything, the movie’s pro-family, pro-immigrant (and anti-NRA!) stance testifies to the evolution of the series from grim cop movie to an inoffensive, uneventful franchise that just wants to be liked. Remember that moment in the first Lethal Weapon where Mel Gibson plays a deranged cop who’s ready to swallow his service revolver out of inconsolable grief over his wife’s death? There will be none of that here, thank you very much. Having progressed far beyond any consideration of Riggs’ darker side, this flick’s just another buddy movie about a pair of cops trying to get the bad guys so they can go home and relax with their loved ones.
Gibson’s Martin Riggs is gonna be a daddy courtesy girlfriend Lorna (Rene Russo). His longtime partner, Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), is gonna be a grandpa thanks to daughter Trish (Darlene Love) and, though nobody’s told Murtaugh yet, newcomer cop Lee Butters (Chris Rock). Slapstick sitcom action ensues, including Murtaugh’s weird conviction that the younger Butters finds him sexually attractive. (As Joe Pesci’s manic Leo would say, “Whatever.”) The intrigue, such as it is, has to do with some Triad gangsters who’ve been brought to Los Angeles from Hong Kong, and the efforts of the Triad to buy them back. Got it? Never mind. It’s just a yarn spun to get some bad guys into the picture. It’s fitting that the film should borrow from the current vogue for Cantonese crime drama, although it should be noted that the brand of abusive wisecracks that worked so well against the despicable South African villains of two movies ago just seem xenophobic when Riggs pulls them on the Chinese. (“Flied lice,” get it?)
Starting with the very first action sequence, which has (natch) nothing to do with anything, your deja vu is gonna get deja vu. LW4 jams the whole cast of leading characters, plus new faces, into its 128-minute time frame, and then hands scenes to each of them a la carte. Rock is energetic, but his scripted shtick wears a little thin. Pesci just seems tired of this already (although his frog monologue near the end is improbably effective). Russo joins the fight at one point, and good for her, but she’s mostly stuck making eyes at Gibson whenever he says the m-word and shrieking at the top of her lungs when she goes into labor. Gibson and Glover share an easygoing charm — but, hell, hasn’t this been done to death already? Compounding the sense of redundancy is the comfy score by Michael Kamen, with phoned-in contributions by Eric Clapton on blues guitar and David Sanborn on glib sax.
All that being said, there are two great reasons to see Lethal Weapon 4. One of them is a genuinely exciting, extravagantly ridiculous highway chase scene that’s no less thrilling for its implausibility. The other is Jet Li, playing against type as chief adversary Wah Sing Ku. Tightly wound and dangerously handsome, his is the only character in this flick who qualifies as “lethal,” in more than one sense of the word. For fans who’ve followed his superlative career in Hong Kong films (including the epic Once Upon a Time in China series), the big question is whether Richard Donner thinks Mel Gibson can kick Jet Li’s ass. Fortunately, Wah Sing is written as one tough sonofabitch. Possessed of a grace and beauty that’s alien to hard-boiled Hollywood, his are the best moments in the film.
If only they had figured out a way to get him on the side of the law. With Jet Li and Chris Rock in the front seat of the police car, we could leave Murtaugh and Riggs to their much-deserved retirements and have a Lethal Weapon 5 to look forward to.
Directed by Richard Donner
Story by Jonathan Lemkin, Alfred Gough, and Miles Millar;
screenplay by Channing Gibson
Edited by Dallas Puett and Frank J. Urioste
Cinematography by Andrzej Bartkowiak
Starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Chris Rock,
Rene Russo, Joe Pesci, and Jet Li
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic)