watching the lethal weapon series with my parents
Content Warning: Mentions of suicide
I returned home last December to find my parents eager to do nothing but watch movies. I didn’t judge. I’m as solid a remote-holding companion as any, and the experience of the right movie can set a positive, unspoken mood that carries throughout the week. But at first, we made the mistake of watching movies too ambitious for our simple goals: Roma, La La Land and The Upside of Anger—all great films, all too much to think about. The crowd-pleasing likes of Miracle and Baby Boom were closer to what movie night demanded. Still, we found they lacked that certain edge we desired but couldn’t quite put into words.
Then, inspiration struck. My father recalled the violent yet banterous and endearing exploits of two cops in a movie series ominously titled Lethal Weapon. Apparently, there were four of these things to work through, and that was enough recommendation for my mom and me. The 1987 original was quickly recorded off the LOGO channel, with the remaining films rented from our local library.
We began watching the first Lethal, and I was stunned. Though I had gone in expecting a realistic movie about cruel, tough-as-nails cops, Lethal Weapon’s violence was completely cartoonish, and its cops deeply lovable. Danny Glover plays Sgt. Robert Murtaugh, a well-meaning, law-abiding policeman, and Mel Gibson co-stars as his crazy new partner Martin Riggs, who is perpetually on the verge of a mental breakdown. These men couldn’t be more different. Yet, somehow, they mesh. Murtaugh and Riggs truly respect and love one another, even though they fear what the other is capable of. The film is ultimately not just the story of a friendship, but the story of a healthy friendship. How many real-life friends can acknowledge their flaws while remaining supportive?
The film’s title seems an obvious reference to Riggs, practically the embodiment of the phrase “loose cannon.” Somehow, some way, the man must kill—even if it means suicide, as shown in one early scene in which he begs Murtaugh to shoot him in the face. Murtaugh refuses but realizes that Riggs isn’t, as he had thought, lying about his suicidal urges. In the bizarre world of Lethal Weapon, this exchange shifts their relationship to a more comfortable, vulnerable place. The film continues with a great performance from Gary Busey as the villain, who, amazingly, ends up dying after a homoerotic mud fight with Riggs.
When the movie ended, I was aching for more—luckily, the next two films replicate the same great formula: gripping, but not too gripping. Unlike movies that are pleasurable because they transport you to their unrealistic worlds (Star Wars comes to mind), the Lethal Weapon series demands very little of its viewers—its cinematic exaggeration is pleasingly unconvincing. This is not to say the films are without deeper importance, however. Murtaugh and Riggs are two people making the best of the insanity both around them and within them. Following the parallel chaos of my first semester at Brown, this really resonated with me. If they could sublimate their pain into a productive, pleasant (okay, maybe not so pleasant) output, then so could I.
Still, when watching, it’s tempting to think of “Murtaugh and Riggs” as “Gibson and Glover”—the characters seem to reflect the actors themselves. After we watched Lethal Weapon 2, my mom flatly announced that she loved Mel Gibson, no matter what his views were. Judging based on performances in the first three Lethal Weapon films, it’s hard not to agree with her. His character is compassionate, caring, and at times, brilliantly off his rocker. He’s a strange, flawed, vulnerable human being who’s easy to love. However, it’s unwise to conflate this performance with the real Mel Gibson, who, after being arrested for a DUI, said, “F***ing Jews…the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” So Lethal Weapon, despite its slick, disposable sheen, demands more of modern viewers attuned to Gibson’s heinous behavior. It might play as an experiment, asking for our forgiveness and empathy. Alternatively, it can call us to meditate on those (reckless, brilliant cops, or racist, charismatic Hollywood actors) who are above the rule of law due to talent and privilege.
After my parents and I spent three days feasting on the first three classic Lethal Weapon movies, we hit a snag: the fourth movie was simply a disgrace. In it, humanity, a crucial element of the first three movies, is stripped away. Instead, spectacle is prioritized over everything—or at least the appearance of spectacle, with no regard to where that spectacle emerges from.
The flow of the fourth movie is nonexistent; entire scenes pass by as the characters flap their jaws around dialogue that is somehow both absurd and boring. It ripped me out of the movie, back to the anxiety of the real world, the raggedness of our aging couch, the fluttering eyes of my father as he tried and failed to stay awake. It was a betrayal of what I wanted from Lethal Weapon and from movies in general. My house felt stained by its hideous noises, by the howling of Joe Pesci’s annoying lawyer character, by my confusion at Chris Rock’s inclusion as Danny Glover’s potential son-in-law, and the shame I felt that such a comic luminary had been tainted by the atrocity that is Lethal Weapon 4. After it concluded, my mother and I quickly agreed it had been two hours we would never get back. Soon, I was alone, my parents fast asleep. I took out some Triscuits, gnawed on them, and reflected on the Lethal Weapon experience as a whole. Ultimately, I decided it had been worthwhile. Except for the anticlimax, I had found the reprieve from school I had been looking for in an unexpected source: sitting on the couch with my parents, watching good-not-great movies.