Any producer will tell you that it’s hard to catch lightning in a bottle, and even harder still to predict what will make it big or what will flop hard. That’s why you hear stories about Decca rejecting the Beatles, or Sean Connery turning down the role of Gandalf, only to find himself in ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘ instead. That’s also why, when a project does make waves, executives will almost always exploit it until it’s a dried-out husk. Overzealous sequels, ill-conceived adaptations, gimmicky celebrity casting… the list is endless. If somebody manages to make something good, chances are that someone else will ruin it later. In this “How to Ruin a Good Thing” feature, we’ll take a look at movies that took something good and tore it to pieces. Our first perpetrator: ‘Lethal Weapon 3’.
The first ‘Lethal Weapon‘ is a bona fide action classic. Shane Black’s script is one of the best of the genre, and the relationship between Mel Gibson’s truly unhinged Riggs and Danny Glover’s “too old for this shit” Murtaugh is a bedrock archetype. The film is littered with memorable set-pieces and even more memorable characters. It was a huge hit, and sequels were inevitable. The second film was not as good as the first, mainly due to a softening of Riggs, but still passed muster as a reasonable action flick.
And then there’s ‘Lethal Weapon 3′. Released just five years after the original, the third entry in the franchise betrayed a complete misunderstanding of what had made the first two work. Shane Black, who had at least contributed to the story of the second film, was completely out of the picture by this time, and Jeffrey Boam seemed to think that the best thing to do was turn the series into a domestic comedy that sometimes featured some action.
Things go wrong right from the beginning. Riggs and Murtaugh respond to a bomb threat, and Riggs, being oh so foolhardy, runs off to disarm it himself. The interplay between Murtaugh and Riggs is off, far too jokey and silly. The film never shakes this vibe, almost always choosing jokes over true character moments. This is perhaps best typified by Delores, a broadly drawn, sassy black armored car driver who finds Murtaugh utterly irresistible during a car chase. Her over-the-top, utterly clichéd presence ruins an otherwise respectable action sequence. Boam and director Donner even have the gall to bring her back in the second act, in the midst of a scene that’s already overlong with stale humor.
The sole point of drama rings far too hollow to satisfy. Early on, Murtaugh sees his son Nick hanging out with some local teens that appear to be sporting gang colors. In a later shoot-out, Murtaugh, defending his life and Riggs’, accidentally kills one of Nick’s friends. This hits Murtaugh so hard that he disappears for a portion of the film, only to have a teary drunken argument with Riggs on a boat that brings him back to his senses. The whole thing is so contrived, and such a transparent attempt to inject pathos into the proceedings, that it feels like a slap in the face to the truly harrowing characterization of Riggs in the first film.
The filmmakers also make the grating decision to bring back Leo Getz, the obnoxious Joe Pesci character from ‘Lethal Weapon 2′. This time out, against all logic, he acts as Murtaugh’s real estate agent, and of course gets embroiled in the case they’re working. Pesci is something out of an entirely different movie. Imagine some unwitting stooge in a latter-day, unfunny Marx Bros. film and you might get the headspace Pesci was working in. He’s completely at odds with all the elements that make the series work, yet he’s all over the movie. There’s even a scene where he’s hospitalized just so that audiences will understand why he’s not running around with our heroes in every shot.
Intriguingly, the film’s villain, Jack Travis, is a crooked cop. However, the script does nothing interesting with this tidbit, simply using it as an excuse to introduce Internal Affairs officer Lorna Cole (Rene Russo) as Riggs’ love interest. Their romance is predictable and boring,. Of course, the two initially hate each other, then are forced to work together, and finally fall in love with a seduction scene that steals so shamelessly from ‘Jaws‘ that it’s a wonder nobody sued.
From what I’ve heard, the fourth ‘Lethal Weapon’ actually improves on things (although Leo Getz is still in it). I’ve never seen it, because Part 3 left such a bitter taste in my mouth. Familiarity breeds contempt, and by 1992, Riggs and Murtaugh were so familiar with each other, and to the audience, that the series had nothing left but contempt.