At first I wasn’t sure I needed to revisit LETHAL WEAPON 3 for this series, because I already wrote a perfectly good review of it (and the other three) back in 2014. But it’s clearly the kick off to the real deal summer movie season of ’92 if you look at the box office charts for its opening weekend, May 15, 1992. It took #1 of course, but everything else on the charts had been out fora while: BASIC INSTINCT in its ninth week, BEETHOVEN in its seventh week, WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP in its eighth week, THE PLAYER in its sixth week, WAYNE’S WORLD in its fourteenth week, etc.
More importantly, I decided it was necessary for comparison. There will be three other big tentpole type sequels this summer, one of them being PATRIOT GAMES (which I’ve also reviewed, but probly won’t revisit) and the other two being, you know… weird. In contrast, this one wants to be exactly what you would imagine a third LETHAL WEAPON to be, no real surprises. As Desson Howe wrote in his review in the Washington Post, “If there’s an original moment in this movie, producer Joel Silver and director Richard Donner sincerely apologize… essentially, they guarantee you the same product you consumed twice before.”
So it’s not gonna do anything too unorthodox or alienating. It’s gonna bring back those two guys you love (Mel Gibson & Danny Glover as Riggs & Murtaugh), they’re gonna have a new adventure, but nothing too new. They do have one new character to freshen things up (Renee Russo as Lorna Cole). Also they brought back the character that was added in part 2 to freshen things up (Joe Pesci as Leo Getz). Is it remotely believable that the obnoxious mob witness they protected is still in their lives, now as Murtaugh’s real estate agent? Absolutely not. But to Donner, at least in this series, that type of shit is not worth wasting a second thinking about. He figured the audience wanted more Pesci, or maybe he just wanted more Pesci, so fuck all that. Give me Pesci. Somebody make up a reason. I don’t give a shit. Get it done.
(The screenplay is by Jeffrey Boam [INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE], but I believe Leo was added in when it was rewritten by Robert Mark Kamen [THE KARATE KID], before being re-rewritten by Boam.)
Because Murtaugh continues to be “too old for this shit” for the third movie in a row, the movie is structured around his last week before retirement, with jokes about him being doomed and his family counting down until the big day. And then the big conclusion is that he decides not to retire, and they support him in that. The end, to be continued, tune in next time, same bat time, same bat channel, same bat shit, possibly with one new character added.
Not to judge previous generations, because I’m the older people now, but as much as young people liked these LETHAL WEAPON movies, they were mainly speaking to the older people sensibilities. They have Eric Clapton doing his white-guy-blues guitar noodling on the score, David Sanborn smoothing it out on sax, promoted to co-composer for parts 2 and 3 for his comical duck squawks pointing out the jokes like rimshots. The opening credits song for this one is by Sting*, and the closing one is by Elton John and Clapton. It’s Guitar Face: The Motion Picture. If it were a person it would drive a BMW convertible, wear a brown leather jacket, and definitely tuck its button up shirt into its jeans.
This revisit reinforced that this is my least favorite of the series. It’s the sloppiest and least serious, without part 4’s extra level of stunt spectacle or evil Jet Li to make up for it. But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy it. I share Donner’s love of returning to hang out with these jerks every once in a while, the introduction of Russo (ONE GOOD COP) as a kickboxing Internal Affairs sergeant/love interest does add a little something, and I kinda like the early ‘90s earnestness of Murtaugh’s anguish over guns falling into the hands of Black youth, sanctimonious or not.
That’s the dramatic portion of the program. In one of the boys’ coincidental happening-to-be-right-there-when-a-crime-is-going-down incidents, Riggs notices an illegal transaction across the street from Murtaugh’s favorite food truck. When he tries to intervene a gunfight erupts, and Murtaugh shoots an unseen man firing a Mac-10. Only after he’s dead does Murtaugh realize it’s a kid he knows, his son’s friend Darryl (Bobby Wynn, “Gang-Member” on a Baywatch two-parter).
Remember, Riggs and Murtaugh work for the LAPD, and this came out two weeks after a jury acquitted the maniac cops who savagely beat Rodney King, triggering days of rioting and generations of increased disillusion with the justice system. If there was a Mount Rushmore of copaganda in popular entertainment, I assume Harry Callahan and Martin Riggs would be the first two faces carved into it, for being charismatic cops who have to break the rules to save the day. But just like some of the DIRTY HARRY pictures this does have a little more nuance to its depiction than some cop-worshipers might have noticed. Not enough to balance out the other stuff, in my opinion, but a little.
Well, maybe. Or maybe showing a fantasy of what we wish cops were like is more misleading than helpful. Murtaugh is a good person, so he’s devastated to have killed Darryl. Riggs comforts him by saying, “Come on man, it was a clean shoot. It’s okay.” A supportive friend, and a typical cop attitude.
“It’s not okay,” Murtaugh says. “I know that kid.” Not “he was no angel,” not “it was self defense,” both of which would be true. Just recognizing that he was a person, and shouldn’t be dead.
He makes the terrible choice of going to the funeral. (Even worse, Riggs and Cole, who don’t even know the family, go with him.) He tries to apologize to Darryl’s mother and gets slapped. This was a justifiable shooting but it’s more remorse than we’ve ever seen publicly from real police who kill people. It’s hard to imagine it ever really happening.
Unlike Al Powell in the backstory to DIE HARD, Murtaugh doesn’t get taken off the streets for his “police involved shooting,” and he really should, because he’s a mess. He gets drunk and depressed on his boat and points his gun at Riggs for taking his Jack Daniel’s away. This makes it especially weird that there are multiple scenes where it’s played for laughs that they keep dodging police psychiatrist Dr. Woods (Mary Ellen Trainor) as she tries to talk to him about what happened. Ha ha ha, therapy! What a crock.
As much as this glorifies Riggs and Murtaugh running around like cowboys firing bullets everywhere, it at least wants to keep guns out of civilians’ hands. The way Murtaugh tries to redeem himself is to go after the suppliers of Darryl’s gun, and that turns out to be a cop. Former Sergeant Jack Travis (Stuart Wilson, later in THE MASK OF ZORRO) is involved in stealing 15,000 guns from police storage. And he’s still buddy-buddy with people on the force, so he comes into headquarters, everybody calls him “Sarge,” and he walks right into an interrogation room and assassinates a witness. The captain (Steve Kahan, PREDATOR 2) says he’s “One hell of a brutal cop. He could beat a confession out of anyone.”
And Cole says, “One hell of a dirty cop,” as if correcting him. As if maybe “brutal cop” was intended as a compliment!
Of course, he’s supposed to be an exception, a bad apple, and Riggs and Murtaugh are supposed to be good cops, but man, are they dangerous! Even setting aside the “mayhem and chaos” they’re correctly accused of causing, they commit numerous should-be-cause-for-immediate-expulsion offenses just for laughs: they hassle a guy about jaywalking and make him think Riggs wants to shoot him. They shoot out Leo’s tires so he can’t follow them. Riggs tells Cole – a sergeant in Internal Affairs who’s investigating him! – to “step into my orifice,” leads her into the men’s restroom and pisses in front of her. Also Murtaugh (as a symptom of getting too old for this shit) accidentally fires his gun into the ground in the locker room; Riggs covers for him by faking a psychotic tantrum and scaring everybody off. I guess they figured, “Just crazy Riggs firing his weapon in the locker room, not surprising.” The rascal.
All this can sort of work as an acknowledgment that shit is fuckin crazy, reckless and indefensible in the world of American policing. But clearly that’s not the intent of any of the filmmakers, even though Donner was a renowned liberal who purposely put a pro-choice t-shirt and anti-fur slogan into this one to promote causes he cared about.
A big deal is made about the bad guys using armor piercing bullets. Riggs terrifyingly demonstrates them to the boys by firing through a kevlar vast on the shooting range. As I pointed out in my old review it’s an interesting development because we previously saw his life saved by a vest – now all bets are off. And then it makes for a clever action movie moment because Travis is driving at Riggs with a bulldozer but Riggs remembers those bullets and uses them to fire right through the shovel.
But an interesting thing about this that applies to our current madness in the U.S. is that even in our capitalist death cult here, armor piercing bullets are illegal for civilians, because what purpose do they really have other than to kill cops? So it turns out there is at least one case where “jesus christ this is fuckin insane you guys, obviously nobody should have access to this shit” wins the day. Seems like we should use that precedent more.
The other interesting thing is that Riggs and others call this ammunition by its nickname, “Cop Killer Bullets.” Which makes me think we should have names like “AR-15 Kid Killer Rifle.” Obviously those things have also been used to slaughter numerous adults, but I think they’ve earned the Kid Killer designation. They’ve worked hard for it.
Anyway. Let’s talk about something more pleasant. Reportedly Boam’s first draft did not have Lorna Cole. The equivalent character was a male officer who was supposed to be crazier than Riggs. Boam also had Riggs having an affair with Murtaugh’s daughter Rianne! Luckily Donner had those things changed.
Obviously the best idea would’ve been to have Murtaugh and Riggs have to team up with Bill Paxton as his ONE FALSE MOVE character Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, getting his “crack at the big time” he dreamed about. But Lorna is the next best thing.
Russo had been in MAJOR LEAGUE, MR. DESTINY, ONE GOOD COP and FREEJACK. I think it’s fair to say this was a big breakthrough for her (followed immediately by IN THE LINE OF FIRE). I remember her getting alot of praise for this role and I might be remembering this wrong but I think people thought it was refreshing to see a woman of her age in that role? I hope I’m mistaken, because she was around 37, and I consider that young now. In fairness, though, she’s two years older than Gibson, and we know how often they give the male hero a much younger love interest. So maybe that’s what they were excited about.
I won’t pretend she’s a deep character. Riggs thinks she’s uptight and is a dick to her and then falls in love after seeing she can fight. There’s a scene where he and Murtaugh stay back and let her take on a bunch of guys by herself so they can watch, seeming to sort of get turned on by it. Worse, she’s saddled with a joke about PMS. Not exactly an enlightened portrayal, but Russo’s charisma definitely makes the character work. (Note: if this was now a certain segment would definitely call her a “Mary Sue” who ruined their precious modern mythology.)
Alot of the traditional action movie spectacle is done well too. Trivia: this is DIE HARD cinematographer Jan De Bont’s only time doing a LETHAL WEAPON, and also his last Hollywood movie as a cinematographer before switching over to directing with SPEED. They have an opening title with sizzling flames that turn out to be the number 3 in the title, and another cold open in the middle of a tense situation. Hard to go completely wrong with that. The scene where they try to find Travis at a hockey game is a funny idea – Riggs grabs a microphone and makes an announcement that they’re coming to arrest him (a few people clap!). And of course it ends up in a chase on the ice.
One thing that’s weird in that scene is Leo gets shot and thinks he’s dying, Murtaugh convinces him he’s just numb from laying on the ice, and a ref announces to the crowd, “He’s okay, he’s okay, he’s gonna make it, he’s alive!” even though nobody has even looked at the wound. What the fuck, ref. Stay in your lane.
I question Donner’s reported decision to cut out some of the scenes about the bad guys, but what’s there is pretty functional. The best touch is that Travis is investing his blood money on a housing development, so he does business in this under-construction neighborhood, kills one of his underlings by cementing him into the ground, and then has the final showdown there, allowing for the use of construction equipment in the action and for his dream to literally go down in flames with him. Good shit.
What drags the movie down for me is the overwhelming volume of trying-too-hard wacky hijinks. The opening and closing scenes both involve a giant explosion, which I can get behind, but the joke that Riggs convinces a reluctant Murtaugh to go with him and just randomly try to cut wires rather than letting the people who know what they’re doing take care of it doesn’t make any sense, especially the second time. Nor does the bomb squad just making fun of them by sarcastically clapping at their failure. And the first time there’s this weird joke (?) that a cat appears on top of the car and Riggs says it’s a “cat-tastrophe”?
And that’s not the only silly animal scene. There’s the one where he gets past a guard dog by crawling around, growling and sharing dog treats, and then for some reason one of the bad guys says “Kill that dog!” and the dog seems to understand it and jumps on a bad guy and escapes with Riggs. It’s all stupid/ridiculous/absurd in a way that I sort of enjoy but that seems completely incompatible with the drama of Murtaugh’s guilt and preaching to the youth about genocide and stuff.
Worse, I don’t think he has the dog with him later! Am I wrong about that? If not, what happened to the dog? Is he okay? He’s out of a job. Who’s gonna take care of him?
A joke I never understood is when Cole says, “Close is a lingerie shop without a front window.” I found an Entertainment Weekly article from the time that explains that rather than whatever clever line Boam scripted, Donner thought it would be funny for her to say a total non-sequitur and confuse Riggs. So they tried different things that made no sense and settled on one Russo came up with. So you’re not supposed to get it. I still don’t get it.
Other parts I think are a little too silly: the part where Riggs interferes with a movie scene being filmed (somehow he doesn’t see any of the crew and thinks it’s a real gun). The part where the armored car driver tries to bring flowers for Murtaugh and he cowers in fear behind a desk. Almost everything with Leo. I understand why they play the Three Stooges theme after the end credits, but I feel like this could stand to be way less stoogey.
Judging from the reviews I’ve been able to find, the critical response was not great. One of the more positive reviews I could find, from Vanessa Letts in The Spectator, seems tongue in cheek. It includes praise such as “Though thousands of homes and offices have just been destroyed, there is no suggestion of troublesome repercussions,” and “the extraordinary thing about these films is that no one does any detective work at all.” That Russo’s character doesn’t get killed is mentioned as one of the “one or two weak spots.”
Variety’s Brian Lowry seemed to sincerely like it, writing that “Even with some flat stretches in the middle, the third WEAPON has plenty of ammunition.” Like many of the reviews, though, he noted that “Riggs’ own brand of police brutality, which includes punching out a handcuffed suspect, will doubtless cause some squirming among those for whom the Los Angeles riots are still a vivid memory.”
That vivid memory seemed to make it harder to laugh off the cop movie excesses. In an aside in his pan of UNLAWFUL ENTRY, Jonathan Rosenbaum called LETHAL WEAPON 3 “a celebration of Los Angeles police brutality and large-scale explosions.” Hal Hinson of the Washington Post was harsher, joking that it should’ve been subpoenaed as evidence in the trial of the LAPD officers because it “could easily be seen as a police training film for how to abuse the power of the badge and violate civil rights and endanger hundreds of innocent lives in the process.”
Obviously, it’s not supposed to be a very serious movie, it’s just for fun. It just had the bad luck to come out right after Rodney King. And now, watching it 30 years later, it just has the bad luck to exist in a world where police are more violent, more unaccountable, have way more money and weapons and armor, and there’s another Rodney King, another Darryl, or another the-kid-Al-Powell-shot every day, even while many police departments have been using so-far-unsuccessful attempts to protect citizens from them as an excuse to barely even do any police work for the last few years. In that context it’s harder than it used to be to just indulge in the fantasy of fun good guy cops being awesome.
But Peter Travers of Rolling Stone didn’t need to go into any of that that to dismiss it. “There’s a reason for calling this brand-name sequel mindless entertainment,” he wrote. “If you think about what you just wasted two hours watching, you won’t be entertained anymore. LETHAL WEAPON 3 offers mediocrity wielded by experts. It’s not a movie, it’s a machine.”
Roger Ebert enjoyed it enough to give it 3 stars, but wrote, “It gets the job done as the third time around, but I have a feeling maybe after this one Murtaugh really should consider retirement.” Of course, he didn’t. Six years later they made a fourth one, and there’s still talk of a fifth one. He’ll be too old for this shit when he’s dead.
*Variety’s review noted, “Sting’s song during the opening credits should help the marketing guys woo the MTV crowd.” That seemed out of touch to me, so I looked up MTV’s Year-End Top 100 Countdown for 1992, which, as I expected, did not include Sting or many of his contemporaries. #1 was “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses, and others include stuff I remember them playing like “Under the Bridge” (Red Hot Chili Peppers), “Jeremy” (Pearl Jam), “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana), “Tennessee” (Arrested Development), “Jump” (Kriss Kross) and “Baby Got Back” (Sir Mix-A-Lot). To be fair, Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” is #11. Still, I believe Sting appealed more to the VH1 crowd.
Signs of the times:
Nick has a Michael Jordan poster in his bedroom. “Latin Lingo” by Cypress Hill is heard playing out of a car near Darryl as a signifier that he’s running with a bad crowd. Boyz II Men’s cover of “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” (released the previous summer) plays at his funeral.
Video game notes:
One ridiculous touch to the Cole/Riggs love story is when his eyes light up seeing she has a Three Stooges video game loaded up on her PC at home. The game is from a company called Cinemaware, originally released for Amiga in 1987 and then ported to other systems. According to Wikipedia, “The game has been praised as a faithful adaptation of the Stooges films, but has been criticized for repetitive gameplay and limited replay value.”
It was created by a designer named John Cutter. He has an official websight that lists his prolific resume of games, most of which are not from licensed properties like the Stooges. One exception is that he was an animator on Howard the Duck: Adventure on Volcano Island, of which he only says, “It was pretty awful, actually.”
LETHAL WEAPON 3 itself inspired a tie-in video game release, just called Lethal Weapon. It was a one player side-scroller, you had to decide whether to play as Riggs or Murtaugh. According to Wikipedia it was criticized for making it more effective to use fists than guns (sounds like a plus to me) but “the NES version is praised for its colorful graphics for 1992, and both versions of the game are universally praised for the music by Neil Baldwin.”
From watching this video it seems to be about that important LAPD work of running through a park full of giant tree stumps executing every single person in sight. The body count in the game is definitely higher than any of the movies.
Apparently the arcade and Super NES version is different and the last level has Jack Travis as the villain.
There was also a LETHAL WEAPON 3 pinball machine which, like the DIRTY HARRY one, has a gun handle and trigger to launch the ball with. From what I can tell from searching Google as well as the Internet Pinball Machine Database (IPDB) this was the only LETHAL WEAPON movie to get a pinball machine. The manufacturer, Data East Pinball, also made such action movie adaptations as LAST ACTION HERO, MAVERICK: THE MOVIE, ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL. (I’ve played all three of the Arnold ones.)
Here’s the best trivia you will ever hear about the Lethal Weapon 3 pinball machine. While it was in production, Data East were commissioned by TV producer Aaron Spelling’s second wife to make a game for him as a gift. So they modified a Lethal Weapon 3 machine into an Aaron Spelling machine. One of the targets has a picture of his daughter Tori, and when you hit it it says “I love you daddy.”
I’m not joking about this. There are a few photos on the IPDB entry. They also made one of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA producer Arnon Milchan. Man, to be ridiculously rich like that. I would be playing my one-of-a-kind BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS machine right now.