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Lethal Weapon is a 1987 action-comedy film, and the first in the Lethal Weapon series of films, all directed by Richard Donner and starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as a mismatched pair of LAPD detectives who are hell bent on protecting and serving despite their differences. The series after the first film falls into the action-comedy and thriller genres, and is generally considered to typify the "buddy cop" plot device. The first Lethal Weapon, along with Die Hard, is credited with setting new standards for urban action films.


The movie is set in December 1986. LAPD Detective Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is depressed about getting old, having recently celebrated his 50th birthday, and receiving messages from Michael Hunsaker (Tom Atkins), an old war buddy from his time served during the Vietnam War, whom Murtaugh realizes he has not seen in 12 years. Called to investigate a suicide, he is horrified to find the victim is Amanda Hunsaker, daughter of Michael. Elsewhere, younger L.A.P.D. Detective Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), depressed and suicidal following the recent death of his wife, nearly kills a disarmed suspect after entering a psychotic rage during a drug bust. Weary of his behavior, Riggs' superiors transfer him to Murtaugh's unit, making them very reluctant partners.

During Amanda's autopsy, drugs laced with drain cleaner are found in her system. Although she jumped to her death, she would have died within minutes anyway, making her death a homicide. After informing her distraught father, who says he was trying to contact Murtaugh to get Amanda out of her drug and pornography habits, Riggs and Murtaugh go to question a pimp known to have connections to Amanda. Finding a drug lab on the premises, they engage in a brief gunfight with the pimp (who is killed in the process), where Riggs saves Murtaugh's life, leading to respect between them. Having found the drugs and with the pimp dead, Murtaugh assumes the case is closed, but Riggs finds it suspicious that the only witness to Amanda's suicide was a prostitute named Dixie, who was working away from her usual location. They deduce Dixie was the one who poisoned Amanda, then posed as a witness to cover her actions.

The next morning, Riggs and Murtaugh go to Dixie's home to question her, but her house explodes just as they arrive. Investigating the site, Riggs, who during the Vietnam War served in US Army Special Forces, finds part of the bomb, a mercury switch, knowing only a professional would use such a device. A neighborhood child also remembers seeing a man at Dixie's earlier, who had a special forces tattoo similar to Riggs' own. Seeing a connection, they decide Michael Hunsaker knows more than he has admitted and Murtaugh confronts him at Amanda's wake.

Hunsaker admits he is involved in a heroin-smuggling operation run by ex-Vietnam War era special operations troops, known as 'Shadow Company'. The scheme is masterminded by a ruthless retired general, Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) - the former commander of Shadow Company - and his chief enforcer, Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey). Hunsaker was laundering the profits through his bank. McAllister had ordered the murder of Amanda when Michael wanted out and unsuccessfully tried to alert Murtaugh to the scheme. As Murtaugh attempts to make Hunsaker reveal the entirety of his operation, Joshua makes a surprise appearance in a helicopter and shoots Hunsaker dead.

As Riggs and Murtaugh attempt to investigate Dixie's connection, the increasingly violent members of Shadow Company attempt to kill Riggs (which they believe is successful, though Riggs had been wearing a bulletproof vest) and then kidnap Murtaugh's daughter Rianne. Using Riggs' presumed-dead status to their advantage, Murtaugh agrees to meet Shadow Company in the desert to exchange himself for Rianne, knowing Shadow Company's plan is to kill them all anyway. As Riggs provides sniper cover from a distance, Roger attempts to make Rianne flee, but ultimately the three are captured. McAllister tortures Murtaugh for information by beating him and rubbing salt into Murtaugh's bullet wound; McAllister demands to know which of their drug shipments have been compromised, eventually threatening Rianne when Murtaugh is not forthcoming, refusing to believe Hunsaker told them nothing. Riggs, brutally tortured with electric shocks, frees himself and then rescues both Murtaugh and Rianne. The pair then fight their way free of their prison, finding themselves in a downtown L.A. nightclub. Riggs chases Joshua on to the street and attempts to cut him off on the freeway, though Joshua ultimately escapes. Murtaugh finds McAllister trying to flee in his car. Taking out McAllister's driver, Murtaugh watches as the car crashes on Hollywood Boulevard and is blown up by a live hand grenade (along with the heroin shipment). Riggs and Murtaugh then head to Murtaugh's home, knowing Joshua will head there to attack Murtaugh's family, who are absent. While Joshua is arrested and led away without incident, Riggs, wanting revenge, proposes "a shot at the title," which Joshua eagerly accepts. Sanctioned by Murtaugh, Riggs engages Joshua in hand-to-hand combat on Murtaugh's front lawn; after a brutal fight, Riggs locks Joshua in the Triangle Chokehold. Riggs releases the pressure and says "You're not worth it" Riggs is the victor. As he's being arrested, Joshua overpowers two officers and attempts to shoot Riggs. Riggs and Murtaugh both draw and fire, killing Joshua.

Murtaugh and Riggs are now solid friends, and Riggs spends Christmas Day at the Murtaugh home with Roger's family; Riggs brings his dog Sam to be a friend to the Murtaugh family cat, Burbank (which proves to be disastrous). Riggs also gives Murtaugh a symbolic gift: the unfired hollow-point bullet which he had been saving to commit suicide, as he does not need it anymore.


The movie is entitled "Lethal Weapon" because Martin Riggs is literally a lethal weapon. The former Special Forces soldier has been reduced to a suicidal killing machine after the death of his wife. The main story arc of the entire series is about the redemption and recovery of Martin Riggs and how Murtaugh and his family providing a foci around which Riggs can rebuild his shattered life. The running gag about Murtaugh's forever delayed retirement is crucial not only to the longevity of the series but also to the gradual healing of Riggs. By the fourth installent Riggs has rebuilt his life and no longer needs the constant support of Murtaugh. Murtaugh thus earns more than a long overdue retirement. He also earns a friend for life.



Recent UCLAmarker graduate Shane Black wrote the screenplay in mid-1985. His agent sent it to producer Joel Silver, who loved the story and worked with Black to further develop the script. After they took it to Warner Bros. in early 1986, studio production executives offered it to director Richard Donner, who also loved it. Leonard Nimoy was one of the choices considered for directing, but he didn't feel comfortable doing action movies, and he was working on Three Men and a Baby at the time. With those key elements in place, the search began for the right combination of actors to play Riggs and Murtaugh.

Casting director Marion Dougherty first suggested teaming Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. She arranged for Gibson to fly in from his home in Australia, while Glover was flown in from Chicago, where he was appearing in a play, to read through the script. According to a June 2007 Vanity Fair article, Bruce Willis was considered for the Riggs role. This is gag referenced in the spoof of "Lethal Weapon" films, National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1. Bruce (as post-Nakatomi Tower/L.A. John McClane) appears after the bad guys attack the wrong beach residence; looking for the protagonist.

According to Donner, "It took about two hours and by the time we were done, I was in seventh heaven. They found innuendoes; they found laughter where I never saw it; they found tears where they didn't exist before; and, most importantly, they found a relationship -- all in just one reading. So if you ask about casting... it was magical, just total dynamite."

Explains Gibson, "This particular story was a cut above others I had passed on, because the action is really a sideline which heightens the story of these two great characters. I picture Riggs as an almost Chaplinesque figure, a guy who doesn't expect anything from life and even toys with the idea of taking his own. He's not like these stalwarts who come down from Mt.marker Olympusmarker and wreak havoc and go away. He's somebody who doesn't look like he's set to go off until he actually does."

The draw for Danny Glover was equally strong. Fresh from his success as Mister in The Color Purple, he felt the role of Roger Murtaugh offered a whole new range of character expression and experience. "Aside from the chance to work with Mel, which turned out to be pure pleasure, one of the reasons I jumped at this project was the family aspect. The chance to play intricate relationships and subtle humor that exist in every close family group was an intriguing challenge, as was playing a guy turning 50. Murtaugh's a little cranky about his age until everything he loves is threatened. His reawakening parallels Riggs'."

Both actors were signed by early spring, '86. Gibson and Glover then flew home to pack, and, returning to Los Angeles, began an intensive two months of physical training and preparation. Meanwhile, the crucial role of the ruthless Joshua was settled when Gary Busey asked for a chance to read for the part. An established star since his Oscar-nominated performance in The Buddy Holly Story, Busey hadn't auditioned for longer than he could remember. "I had butterflies," he realized. "I'd never played a bad guy. And no one had seen me since I'd lost 60 pounds and got back into shape. But I decided to take the initiative in order to have the opportunity to work with Dick, Joel, Mel and Danny. I'm constantly looking for someone to pull the best performance out of me and any of those guys could. They even talked me into dying my hair!" In his E! True Hollywood Story bio, Gary Busey says he was hired to play Joshua because they were looking for someone big and menacing enough to be a believable foe for Mel Gibson. Busey also credits the film for reviving his failing movie career.

Stunt coordinator Bobby Bass planned and supervised all phases of Gibson's and Glover's intense pre-production training; physical conditioning, weight workouts, and weapons handling and safety. Bass administered the latter category according to the strict guidelines of the National Rifle Associationmarker. Bass also used his own military experiences to bring a greater depth of understanding to the Riggs character. To familiarize the actors with the specialized skills and sensibilities acquired by undercover cops, arrangements were made for Gibson and Glover to spend time in the field accompanying working L.A.P.D. police officers. Throughout filming, technical advisors from the L.A.P.D. as well as the Sheriff's Department worked closely with Donner and the actors to ensure authenticity.


Lethal Weapon began principal photography on August 6, 1986, shooting on locations throughout the Los Angeles area, as well as on the backlot facilities of Burbank Studios. Filming began in Long Beach, Californiamarker, with helicopter camera work that would set the tone for the opening title sequence and the first spectacular stunt of the movie. The company then moved to Palos Verdes, Santa Monicamarker, Studio Citymarker, West Hollywoodmarker, and Inglewoodmarker with one week out-of-town in El Mirage, an enormous dry lake bed outside Victorville, Californiamarker.

From the early pre-production stages of Lethal Weapon, Richard Donner wanted Mel Gibson's final fight sequence to be unique, yet also to make a strong statement about the characters involved. Coincidentally, assistant director Willie Simmons had an avid interest in unusual forms of martial arts, and he invited several practitioners to the set to demonstrate for Donner. The result was the hiring of three technical advisors, each a master of a particular martial arts style.

Cedric Adams was the first expert brought in. "Adams thought the best possible way to show just how lethal Riggs really is -- is to show his mastery of a form of martial arts never before seen onscreen," said Donner. Adams taught the actors the movements of Capoeira. A second technical advisor, Dennis Newsome, brought jailhouse rock to the fight sequence. The third technical advisor was Rorion Gracie, who specialized in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

The filming was spread over four complete nights, shooting from dusk to dawn, resulting in an edited sequence that would last minutes on screen. Principal photography was completed in mid-November 1986. Hollywoodmarker city officials hung Christmas decorations on Hollywood Blvd. a few months early so that the scenes shot for this film, particularly the action scenes near the end of the picture, looked like they happened at the end of the year.

Legendary stunt man Dar Robinson was killed in a motorcycle accident shortly after principal photography was finished. Director Richard Donner dedicated the film to him. Jackie Swanson performed the high fall on her own. She was trained by Dar Robinson. Richard Donner's directing credit appears after Amanda Hunsacker leaps to her death. This is a reference to a joke that Richard Donner films often have sequences of people falling in his films (Lee Remick in The Omen and Margot Kidder in Superman).

One sequence shows a theatre marquee advertising The Lost Boys, a film Richard Donner was producing at the time.


Michael Kamen, who just completed work on Highlander, composed the score for Lethal Weapon. The guitar, part of Riggs' theme, was performed by Eric Clapton. The saxophone, part of Murtaughs' theme, was performed by David Sanborn. The Christmas song, "Jingle Bell Rock", is played during the film's opening credits. Honeymoon Suite's song, "Lethal Weapon," is played during the film's end credits without being credited .


Released on March 6, 1987, Lethal Weapon was #1 at the box office for three weeks before Blind Date supplanted it. It grossed $120 million worldwide and was nominated for Academy Award for Sound and for Sound Effects Editing (the former was won by The Last Emperor, the latter won by Robocop). It is widely considered to be one of the best buddy cop films of all time, influencing numerous "buddy cop" films such as Tango & Cash, Bad Boys and the Rush Hour series.

Franco Zeffirelli reportedly decided to offer Mel Gibson the role of Hamlet after seeing his suicide contemplation scene in this film.

In 2007, Entertainment Weekly named it the #24 greatest action movie of all time. It scores 90% at Rotten Tomatoes.

Alternative versions

An alternate opening and ending were both filmed and are available on the Lethal Weapon 4 DVD. The alternate opening featured Martin Riggs drinking alone in a bar where he is accosted by a couple of thugs who want his money. Riggs claims all of his is in the bank and tells the thugs "not to fuck with him." The thugs attack him, but Riggs easily subdues them. He is then allowed to take a free bottle of booze from the bar in exchange for never returning. Director Richard Donner felt the movie should open with a brighter look at Riggs and filmed the scene with Riggs awakening in his trailer to replace it. The alternate ending featured Riggs and Murtaugh saying good-bye to one another. Murtaugh tells Riggs he's thinking of retiring, but Riggs tells him not to.

In addition to the theatrical release of the film, an extended "Directors Cut" version was released later on DVD. The Directors Cut version is longer (117 minutes) than the original theatrical release version (110 minutes), and features additional scenes. One notable extended scene includes Riggs dispatching a sniper who had been firing at children in a playground.

The novelization was written by Joel Norst:

See also

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