Everyone looks they’re having a good time on “Lethal Weapon 4” (1998). That’s sometimes a warning sign that the viewer will be as miserable as a wallflower at a raucous party, but that’s not the case here. Although director Richard Donner, veteran TV writer Channing Gibson (in his film debut; no relation to Mel) and the cast make this stuff look effortless, “LW4” is at the same time the most tightly plotted of the sequels as it finds room for boffo action sequences.
It also finds time for Joe Pesci and newcomer Chris Rock to steal scenes without distracting from hero cops Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover). When Rock appears as Detective Lee Butters, I thought “What in the world is Chris Rock doing in this movie?” But the Butters-Murtaugh interplay is amusing (albeit dated) as Murtaugh mistakenly thinks Butters is gay and interested in him.
Rock doesn’t bump the established comic relief aside. Pesci gets his moments too as the increasingly lovable criminal-turned-Realtor-turned-private-eye Leo Getz. One of the most delightful scenes is a melding of comedic bits, with Getz making his case that “they f*** you with the cellphones” and Butters (obviously Rock being his comedian self) fondly recalling rotary phones that you couldn’t possibly misplace.
A litmus test for whether this is your kind of humor comes in the dentist chair scene, when our heroes interrogate a Chinese crime boss (Kim Chan as Uncle Benny) using laughing gas. As everyone laughs uproariously, Murtaugh learns Butters is going to be his son-in-law. Like a lot of scenes in “LW4,” Channing Gibson – working from a story by Jonathan Lemkin, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar – puts discussions about life issues right into the plot-focused or action scenes. The “LW” sequels have always tried to blend multiple tones, and it has never worked better.
“LW4” has the best villains and the most graspable scheme of the series. Some of Riggs’ racist taunts (“Speaky English?”) might be cringe-worthy now, but hey, he is addressing murderous international criminals. Jet Li, as living weapon Wah Sing Ku, lurks around with palpable presence – like Darth Maul in “The Phantom Menace” one year later – and showcases his martial arts skills more than once.
The only fight sequence that’s less than great is when he faces off against Riggs and Murtaugh. By now it’s clear they can’t logically defeat a guy with this level of fighting skills, so we get some quick editing make it more plausible. Donner does give the dockside battle rainy atmosphere, though. And the highway chase is deliciously ridiculous and thrilling, highlighted by Riggs and a baddie slugging it out inside a mobile home.
One aspect that’s quite relevant when viewed today is the Chinese slaves’ search for a better life in America. Immigration – mostly of the Mexican variety – has become topical during the Trump presidency. It’s striking to think that these immigrants would rather work off a $35K debt – making them de facto slaves for life – under Chinese crime lords in America than live in their home country. But this was 1998. When we see illegal immigration numbers dropping, we should ask ourselves if other countries have improved or if America has dropped to their level.
Before “Lethal Weapon” concludes its four-film run, it reminds us that Pesci is one of the cast’s best actors when Leo tells Riggs a touching anecdote about his childhood pet frog. As Riggs’ pregnant girlfriend, Rene Russo doesn’t fare as well in this entry: Lorna’s centerpiece is her demand to be married in the hospital before her baby comes. But by this time I had forgiven the franchise’s excesses.
“LW4” is the most balanced, polished and funny of the four films. Donner and company wanted to wrap it up here and they stuck to that – at least for quite a while. (“Lethal Weapon” was rebooted as a TV series from 2016-19 without Donner’s involvement. And the web tells me “Lethal Weapon 5,” with the original cast and crew, is now in development.)
Since I don’t want to get crucified on the internet, I won’t say “Lethal Weapon 4” ranks higher than the gritty Shane Black-penned original that codified the buddy-cop trope and established a darker tone that the sequels weren’t interested in. But it’s the best sequel, and a final bow (for now) that the series can be proud of.