MOVIE REVIEW : A Lethal 'Weapon 2'

"We're back! We're bad! You're black! I'm mad!"

That's the kind of dialogue we get in the new car-crash, heavy-artillery thriller, "Lethal Weapon 2" (citywide). And, if it suggests a movie poster catch-phrase instead of human speech, it's probably intentional.

In 1987's "Lethal Weapon," a quasi-suicidal cop named Martin Riggs, who didn't care if he lived or died, was partnered with a steady, cautious black family man, Roger Murtaugh. It was another male-bonding cop movie, with gimmicks out of "48 HRS." and "Magnum Force," a relationship out of "The Defiant Ones," and an incredibly silly kung fu showdown climax.

Still, the Riggs-Murtaugh friendship touched a nerve, partly because two superb actors, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, were playing the parts, and partly because the director (Richard Donner), cinematographer (Stephen Goldblatt) and composers (Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton)--all of whom repeat their chores here--gave it a hard, bright, whirling surface that suggested chrome on fire, with a backbeat.

The key scene in this new "Lethal Weapon" occurs early on, when Riggs switches on his TV set and immediately finds the Three Stooges and with manic abandon, tosses the channel-changer over his head--no need to look for anything better than this --and begins wildly laughing.

But there's something wrong. The Stooges haven't done anything funny yet; they're just standing there. Riggs is cued to break up at the thought of what he knows is about to come. The scene signals how this whole movie plays: it reacts to things almost before they happen, as if Riggs, Murtaugh and Leo Getz (Joe Pesci), the embezzling gang accountant who tags along with them, were a lethal form of Three Stooges.

The movie is keyed up, hyper. The action scenes are outrageously overscaled, with 10 times more firepower than seems necessary. If there's a car-chase through downtown Los Angeles, Riggs will chase the car up a freeway ramp on foot. (The only wonder is if he doesn't catch it.)

"Lethal Weapon 2" has the brain-rattling pace of a terminal speed freak going the wrong way down an expressway. When people get angry at each other, they don't swear or fight. They drop a dumpster on somebody, or blow up their house at a poker game, or hitch up a truck and chain and pull their house off a hillside. (The film makers are no pikers; they've obviously built a real house and then pulled it down.)

In the first "Lethal Weapon," events were keyed around Riggs' Russian Roulette life style. In Part 2, he's supposedly cured and everyone else acts crazy--including Murtaugh, who shoots killers with a nail-gun and then remarks, apparently to the atmosphere, "I nailed 'em!"

There are no lag spaces. If Murtaugh settles down for a quiet evening of TV, the very first thing he sees will be a condom ad starring his own daughter. Love is fast here--except for Murtaugh and wife Darlene Love, who act like a sexless TV sitcom family out of the '50s. There's a grand romance between Riggs and a secretary (Patsy Kensit), which goes by so speedily, it seems to be on fast-forward: it takes about 15 speeches for them to wind up in bed, even less for a full-scale catastrophe.

Some of this gives the film a sophisticated cachet that the first "Lethal Weapon" didn't have. On a very simple level, Jeffrey Boam's script, taken from a story co-written by the first movie's scenarist, Shane Black, is clever. The dialogue tries to give us the punchy inside banter of pros on the run. Donner and Boam include knowing little touches: the Murtaugh daughters chide their dad about eating tuna, because of the drag-net techniques that kill dolphins. And these villains aren't just villains. They're diplomats and staff from the South African consulate; when one of them is caught on shipboard surrounded by corpses and drug money, he pulls out a card and says: "Diplomatic immunity."

Boam also includes scenes where Riggs and Murtaugh kid each other about being in love; they're in each other's arms after Murtaugh's toilet, wired by the mob, blows up. The end of this movie is like pop Wagner--or maybe the Wagner in Chuck Jones' "What's Opera, Doc?" This kind of hip riff on the homoerotic undercurrents of male-bonding cop movies doesn't make the relationship any less superficial. It's more like a guy who comes on and tells jokes you've heard before, and then winks and says he knows they're bad; he's heard them before, too.

And, though it's nice to have a big-audience action movie attacking apartheid and the slaughter of sea mammals, instead of acting as an enlistment poster for the Army Air Corps, local vigilante groups or the reopening of the Vietnam War, the sentiments don't really transcend the car crashes.

It's no good saying that "Lethal Weapon 2" (MPAA rated R for language, partial nudity, violence and sex) isn't a highly professional, super-craftsmanlike job, or that actors like Gibson, Glover and Pesci--and Joss Ackland and Derrick O'Connor (the bad guys)--aren't doing excellent work in a rigid, overspecialized format. Or that this movie won't please the majority of its intended audience. It is. They are. And it will.

But there's a sense in which all these recent one-against-a-hundred cop and war thrillers represent the gaudy degeneration of the great tradition of the American action movie: substituting hardware for atmosphere, exaggeration for suspense, sadism for humor, shtick for character, blood and guts for body and soul. It's ironic, because it seems obvious that what the public liked most about "Lethal Weapon"--and what Donner and Boam want to give them more of--were the scenes with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover acting together. It's a tribute to both actors that they keep their cool and charisma here, even when they're locked in each other's arms and a toilet is flying out the window.

'LETHAL WEAPON 2'

A Warner Brothers release of a Silver Pictures production. Producers Richard Donner, Joel Silver. Director Donner. Script Jeffrey Boam. Camera Stephen Goldblatt. Production design J. Michael Riva. Editor Stuart Baird, Music Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton, David Sanborn. Art directors Virginia Randolph, Richard Berger. Co-producers Steve Perry, Jennie Lew Tugend. With Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Joss Ackland, Derrick O'Connor, Patsy Kensit, Darlene Love.

Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

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

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