After the monumentally dumb (but nonetheless entertaining) “Lethal Weapon 2” (1989), the saga pulls back from so-bad-it’s-good territory for the solid boilerplate actioner “Lethal Weapon 3” (1992). Director Richard Donner and writers Jeffrey Boam and Robert Mark Kamen dial back the stupidity – although there’s still plenty – and give good arcs to Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) while adding Rene Russo, who slots right in as internal affairs investigator Lorna Cole.
The bad guys’ scheme in this one is again dumb – Lorna figures out who is stealing guns and ammo from police evidence simply by digging into the computer records — but it’s dumb on a more comprehensible level than the racist South African diplomats’ scheme in the second film.
Admittedly, the fact that it takes the good guys – again joined by real-estate agent Leo Getz (Joe Pesci, getting mileage out of his “OK, OK, OK” shtick) – so long to solve the case makes them look a little incompetent. The screenplay could use another level of governmental conspiracy to be real-world plausible.
But Stuart Wilson – rocking a 1992 mustache like Gibson rocks a 1992 ponytail — eats up the role of baddie Jack Travis, starting when he buries an incompetent underling in cement. I dig the ridiculousness of an ex-cop land-development mogul who brazenly runs guns and “cop killer” bullets to street gangs, and who employs construction workers who double as criminal thugs.
“LW3’s” window into L.A. drug wars and weapons running is of-the-time but still relevant today. Glover gets to do some acting when Murtaugh goes into a depressive drinking binge after being forced to kill a gang-banger friend of his son Nick (Damon Hines) in a shootout.
I don’t know if it’s possible for this saga to truly showcase dramatic acting after embracing the more-comedic approach, but the scuffle between Riggs and Murtaugh on a docked boat gives heart to this movie. The sequence ends with a solid one-liner when a patrol boat inquires as to what the partners are doing in the water: “We’re working on a case … of scotch,” Riggs explains. Gibson is more locked in here than in part two, and Glover tries his darnedest to keep up – a dynamic that works well for the characters’ partnership.
Also aging well is the notion of Lorna as someone who is just as competent as the guys – in fights more so than in internal-affairs mysteries, granted. It’s amusing when Riggs and Murtaugh stand back and enjoy the show as Lorna takes out five bad guys. Earlier in the saga, Lorna probably wouldn’t have been so competent in the field.
The romantic evening between Riggs and Lorna is the film’s highlight, enhanced by the actors’ chemistry. Granted, Gibson can evoke chemistry with any actress by switching to that puppy-dog look, which he does here. The sequence riffs on the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) wherein Indy’s body hurts all over, but it takes matters to another level of humor as the duo compare war wounds until Riggs is in his underwear. Then an almost sexual assault – through today’s lens — happens when Riggs pulls Lorna close and kisses her, but luckily she’s into it (especially considering that she works in internal affairs).
A culture shift happens between “LW2” and “LW3.” Whereas Riggs is a homophobe in the first two movies, here he kisses Murtaugh as a joke. Gay people have moved from gross to funny in the four-year interim. Then, after 15-20 years of being “funny,” they became mainstream and not worth commenting on at all.
One area where “LW3” hasn’t aged well is in regard to cops’ mistreatment of the citizenry. Temporarily busted down to street patrol, Riggs waves his gun at a jaywalker and Murtaugh at least for a moment thinks the whole thing is funny. Granted, Murtaugh later tells Riggs “we’re cops, not criminals,” but it’s likely that if this film were made today, it would not glean humor from police abusing their power over ordinary citizens.
“LW3” doesn’t originate the “one week till retirement” notion, but it is perhaps the most famous example, as Murtaugh regularly announces how many days he has left. This film delights in leaning into that cliché – as well as the stereotype of the gregariously frisky black woman (Delores Hall), whose pursuit of the married Murtaugh doesn’t pay off like it should.
The action is good here, albeit sometimes stagey. I felt bad upon seeing the wide shot of Travis’ construction site, knowing that it’s soon to be blown sky high by Riggs and company. On the other hand, a big chase sequence — which comprises underground police storage facilities, the subway and an aboveground shopping area – gives us new things to look at.
Where you rank “Lethal Weapon 3” among the four films depends on what ratio of stupidity to groundedness you prefer. This is a step back toward sanity after the total ridiculousness of the second entry, and I personally think that’s a good move. After all, if you didn’t want any serious moments at all, “Loaded Weapon 1” (1993) was in the pipeline by this point.