MOVIE REVIEWS : GIBSON EXPLODES AS 'LETHAL WEAPON'

Unpredictability is the hallmark of most good actors, and a sense of danger can carry you a long way. In "Lethal Weapon" (citywide), Mel Gibson gets hold of one of those archetypal, dangerous, star-making parts: a wildly unpredictable character who careens through the movie, pulling crazy stunts, magnetizing everyone's attention.

It's a good thing he does. Gibson is the lethal weapon of the title, and without him or co-star Danny Glover the movie would really be lost. At bottom, "Lethal Weapon" isn't much. It's a big, shallow, flashy, buddy-buddy cop thriller; it attacks you like a stereophonic steamroller, flattening everything behind it. Snatches of "Hustle" "Magnum Force" and "48 HRS." float above this plot like scum on a polluted lake, and the holes in logic and mindless climax are (or should be) embarrassing.

But, on some levels, the movie works anyway. Director Richard Donner puts it into bright, jazzy overdrive, and the cinematography (Stephen Goldblatt) and music (Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen) are just right: gritty, gleaming, cartoon-hard. And, at center, is the first big, juicy mythic-hero part Gibson has had since Mad Max.

He's playing a suicidal L.A. cop named Martin Riggs. And though we never get much of what pushed him to the edge (his wife's gravestone is used like moral punctuation), Riggs' craziness drives the movie along: He's a manic, comic Galahad.

Riggs is supposedly a Vietnam (Special Forces) veteran. So is his apoplectic partner, Murtaugh (Danny Glover). And so are the villains, who include an icy torpedo, Joshua (Gary Busey), and who run a heroin-smuggling ring, against which Riggs and Murtaugh wage two-man war. The movie, written by 23-year-old Shane Black, seems to be taking Vietnam as a touchstone of manhood (or macho ). It either made you Superman, or turned you rotten. Or made you a warm, understanding family man, like Murtaugh.

As with "Outrageous Fortune," it's often difficult to believe that the same people are responsible for the first part (where the characters are sketched in) and the second half (where the heroin ring and movie blow up simultaneously). There's a grandiosely gratuitous feel to the final action scenes--as if some all-purpose car-crash and kung-fu unit had just rolled in and taken over the picture.

In great action movies, including "The Road Warrior," the characters are the same in the action and out of it. Not here. Why, when so much time is spent showing Riggs as a quasi-suicide and crack shot, aren't those traits used in the big-bang finale? Why does he turn instead into a mishmash of Bruce Lee, Indiana Jones, Dirty Harry and Rambo, dodging insane smashups on Hollywood and Las Palmas and staging ludicrous kung-fu matches before a bewilderingly inactive audience of fellow cops? (This climactic battle doesn't work as action, drama, comedy--or even kung fu.)

But the Riggs-Murtaugh tie is an interesting relationship. And Gibson and Glover are such good actors that as long as the camera stays on them (and Murtaugh's screen family, including nonpareil rock singer Darlene Love)--and not on the slicked-up, empty Hollywood carnage exploding predictably around them--the movie is fun. Glover is the straight man, Riggs' sidekick and paterfamilias, a solid, moral, by-the-book older cop--and against him, Gibson projects a defanged near-cuddly pathology. Like James Dean or Marlon Brando in their heyday, he suggests someone wild but gentle: a seeming psychopath, whose swagger and recklessness conceal undercurrents of sadness, hurt and heroic decency.

Brando and Dean played this shattered type in '50s dramas; then, the Murtaugh role would have been a cop, priest or social worker guiding them. Gibson, working in a derivative thriller, stylizes the part into a figure of fun. But his big gestures and violent emotions (and Glover's and Busey's) all register. There's a vein of humor and emotion running through "Lethal Weapon" (MPAA-rated R), that carries it further than it deserves. Unfortunately, in the end, in true '80s form, its makers ultimate motto seems to be: "When in doubt, crash a car." 'LETHAL WEAPON'

A Warner Brothers release of a Silver Pictures production. Producers Richard Donner, Joel Silver. Director Donner. Camera Stephen Goldblatt. Production design J. Michael Riva. Editor Stuart Baird. Music Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton. With Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitchell Ryan, Darlene Love, Traci Wolfe.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).

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