As a purveyor of fine cinema, you can imagine my shock when I turned on the Rye Record’s own Bros Podcast to hear its hosts – Nick and Will Jovanovich – spend the first five minutes of an otherwise unrelated episode trashing the “Lethal Weapon” franchise. For those who are unaware, “Lethal Weapon” is a hit 1987 action film directed by Richard Donner about the escapades of Los Angeles police officers Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), partners who, while mismatched in age, race, and attitude, quickly earn each other’s trust and become best friends. Over the course of the franchise’s four films, Riggs and Murtaugh prove themselves to be both first-rate detectives and a paragon of fraternal love.
The chief complaints of the Bros are two-fold. First, they argue that the films got worse with each entry in the franchise, a claim so outrageous that it doesn’t even deserve to be prosecuted. It should be noted that the Bros didn’t bother to explicate it, so why should we? Their one complaint that deserves an honest exploration is that the schemes of the villains of those subsequent films didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Being villains themselves, I’m tempted to defer to their expertise, but my love of the franchise demands I defend it, so let’s get into it.
At first glance, the evidence would appear to be on the side of the Bros. “Lethal Weapon 2” features a South African diplomat who is laundering money in the U.S. and returning it to his home country. The third entry has something to do with an ex-cop who is building homes for sale in the desert. I can’t recall the nefarious details of his plan, but I do remember he kills one of his workers in a cement mixer, so we know he’s a bad guy. “Lethal Weapon 4” sports the most memorable villain of the franchise, a Hong Kong gangster played by martial arts star Jet Li. His fierce gaze and unparalleled agility when fighting are burned into my memory, although I’ll admit the details of his criminal scheme are hazy.
The Bros are correct that the villainy is ill-defined in the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, but they are wrong to hold it against the films themselves. If we do, we must also dismiss the villains of every James Bond movie, the entire “Mission: Impossible franchise, and Richard Donner’s own “Superman,” in which Lex Luthor schemed to cause an earthquake in California, increasing the value of his properties, which, after part of the state crumbled into the ocean, would suddenly have beachfront value. Villainy in blockbuster films is by rule ill-defined so that we can keep our focus where it belongs: on the virtue and might of our heroes. A bad guy with a convoluted plan creates a faint feeling of confusion in the viewer that is released when the heroes show up and end all complications with a few well-timed punches or flying bullets.
Maybe the Bros were spoiled by “Die Hard” or “The Matrix” or even “Avengers: Endgame,” all of which featured devious villains with intelligent, well thought-out schemes. Or perhaps they were ruined by “The Dark Knight,” or any film with the Joker, a character so committed to anarchy that all plans are excused. But while those are better action movies than any in the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, none of them have its heart. We watch “Lethal Weapon” for the laughs Riggs and Murtaugh share, and the meaningful glances that men exchange when they cannot tell what’s in their hearts. The exigencies of blockbuster cinema require Riggs and Murtaugh to be fighting a common enemy but the details really don’t matter because “Lethal Weapon” isn’t an action movie at all. It’s a love story.