Christmas in L.A.

Chemistry between actors is a tricky thing to define. It’s one of those things where you know it when you see it, but you also know it when you don’t see it. Sometimes actors click really well together and they seem like real people instead of actors playing characters. Other times they seem like two slabs of wood attempting to communicate. Good chemistry, like good dialogue, is something to be appreciated because it too seems like it’s all too rare these days.

God bless “Lethal Weapon,” then, for having both of these elements in such great abundance. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are the original buddy-cop duo, often imitated but never equaled. (The closest in my opinion would be Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s brilliant “Hot Fuzz,” which you really should see if you haven’t yet.) Gibson and Glover are two peas in a pod, yin and yang, and all of those other clichés. But clichés become clichés because they are based in truth, and Gibson and Glover work so well together that the buddy-cop movie has since become something of a cliché.

This is unfortunate, because it makes it easy to forget just how good of a movie 1987’s “Lethal Weapon” is. It is well-made, well-written, well-acted, surprisingly moving at times, and, above all, it is supremely entertaining. It is also, of course, a Christmas movie.

The first thing the viewer hears as the film opens is “Jingle Bell Rock,” which plays over the opening credits, as the camera pans along the skyline of Los Angeles. The camera eventually zooms in on one particular building, and a figure standing on the balcony maybe twenty stories up.

It is a girl, young, blond, and attractive. She seems a bit dazed, perhaps drugged. This is confirmed a few moments later when she sniffs a few lines of cocaine off a table. She then jumps off the balcony and falls to her death, crushing a car below. The credit “Directed by Richard Donner” appears over the image of her seminude corpse on top of the smashed car.

Heck of a way to start a movie.

The scene then shifts to the home of one Roger Murtaugh, who is sitting in his bathtub when his wife and three kids come barging in to wish him a happy birthday. He’s turning 50 today, and boy is he starting to feel old (Interestingly, Danny Glover was actually 40 when this movie was made).

The scene then shifts to a mobile home parked by the beach, wherein resides Martin Riggs, who, in stark contrast to the family life of Roger Murtaugh, wakes up naked and treats himself to a healthy, balanced breakfast of a beer and a cigarette, and tosses a treat to his dog.

Then, we’re back to Murtaugh, whose wife tells him if he knows a guy named Michael Hunsaker, who called recently. Roger says yes, they served in Vietnam together but he hasn’t heard from in over a decade. Why would he be calling now?

Then, we’re back to Riggs, who is now clothed (thank goodness) and loads up his gun before sticking it in his pants (who needs a holster?) and finishing off his beer. He looks at his TV, on which an obnoxious infomercial is playing, and in a sudden burst of anger he throws the bottle at the TV screen, shattering it and knocking over the picture of his wife he had placed on the top of it. He immediately appears regretful, rights the picture, and mumbles, “I’ll buy you a new one,” before he heads out the door.

All of this is paced perfectly. It moves along at exactly the right clip, and it provides great introductions to the core duo which are very effective because of how sharply different they are from each other. The viewer knows that these two very different individuals will meet eventually, although it’s not immediately clear how just yet.

When Roger gets to work at the police station, he finds out about the jumper from the previous night. Turns out her name was Amanda Hunsaker, and she was the daughter of Roger’s old ‘Nam buddy. From there the story plays out, involving a nasty ring of drug smugglers called Shadow Company who got started running heroin out of Vietnam. Now they are operating in Los Angeles, and they are not very happy that the cops are suddenly on to them.

I’m not going to detail the rest of the plot, because that would take too long and I really want to focus on the characters of Riggs and Murtaugh. Say what you will about Mel Gibson these days, Lord knows the man’s reputation is pretty much shot to hell, but he made some damn good movies in his heyday. Despite some of his deplorable behavior over the last couple of years, he really was a heck of a good actor.

Never, in my opinion, was his talent on better display than it is in Lethal Weapon. Martin Riggs seems like a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, and in many ways he is, but it also becomes immediately obvious that he is, shall we say, a deeply troubled individual. In one heartwrenching scene, he considers suicide as he sits in his trailer, his wife’s picture on his lap and his gun in his hand, a Bugs Bunny Christmas special babbling away on TV.

He’s even bought a special bullet, a hollow-point, just to make sure it does the job properly (hollow-points expand as they pass through a body, so the exit wound is substantially larger than the entry wound). He loads the round into his gun, and presses it against his forehead…his fingers strain against the trigger…tears stream down his eyes…he puts the gun in his mouth instead…he closes his eyes…he almost pulls the trigger…then at the last second he wrenches the gun away with a sob. He slaps himself in the face with it and looks down at his wife’s picture. He picks it up and holds it to his face. “I miss you,” he mumbles, sobbing. “I miss you, Victoria Lynne.” He looks at the picture again, tears streaming down his face. “That’s silly, isn’t it?” he says. “Well, I’ll see you later,” he says, dropping the picture. “I’ll see you much later,” and he cries into his arm (here’s the scene on YouTube if you want to watch it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpOqkz86_lg).

It’s a hell of a scene. Gibson’s acting is superb, and the look of pain on his face as he looks at his wife’s picture is one of the most genuine expressions of emotion I’ve ever seen on film. It’s a powerful scene that moves me almost to tears. It’s not the kind of scene you’d expect to find in a summer blockbuster. It feels heartfelt and is genuinely moving. The scene is also incredibly suspenseful, and it is remarkably successful in getting you to believe that he might actually pull the trigger.

Riggs is suicidally depressed because his wife was recently killed in a car crash. He engages in reckless and dangerous behavior because without her, he feels rudderless. Much to its credit, the film does not judge him for this. It does not make Riggs’ pain feel sappy or sentimental, it feels very genuine. Everyone at the police department either thinks that Riggs is crazy, or that he’s faking being crazy in order to draw a pension. But they don’t know his pain like the viewer does, and like Roger Murtaugh will once they become partners and start investigating the Hunsaker case.

I love Riggs and Murtaugh. They are one of the greatest cinematic duos of all time. Both are so immensely likable that you spend the whole movie rooting for them wholeheartedly. But what is so extraordinary about them is that they feel like real people. Sure, they’re goofy and they banter and all that, but their relationship really rings true. These two go so well together that you start to wonder why you ever thought they wouldn’t. The film doesn’t pull any cheap tricks in order to make you like them, and it doesn’t force you to root for them. You like them and you root for them because they are genuinely likable people.

And oh, man, that dialogue. Lethal Weapon was written by a fellow named Shane Black, a wizard with zippy dialogue if ever there was one. Pretty much every line from the movie is extremely quotable (though admittedly there are some lines you wouldn’t necessarily want to repeat in polite company). So many times movies try to have characters engage in witty banter and they just fail miserably. Just fall flat, like Mark Sanchez after he bounced off his own defender’s butt.

In Lethal Weapon, it succeeds marvelously. The banter flows back and forth between Riggs and Murtaugh as if they were characters in a Shakespeare play. The movie is also funny as hell, evidenced in this scene where Riggs takes down a couple of drug-dealing scumbags dealing dope out of their Christmas tree lot:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=dUlfNMTc6Xc&feature=endscreen

That scene is also an example of the balancing act that Lethal Weapon pulls off so effortlessly: It’s funny, then tense, then funny again, then tense again, and then you learn something about one of the characters. It is the perfect mix of action, comedy, and drama. It is the buddy-cop movie Michael Bay wishes he could make. It is just awesome.

And to top it all off, it is downright full of Christmas cheer. How can you beat a movie that starts with “Jingle Bell Rock” and ends with none other than Elvis Presley crooning “I’ll Be Home for Christmas?” It would be pretty tough.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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