Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, ...

In “Lethal Weapon 4” (Warner Bros.), about the only thing that’s changed between stable family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and hot-wired widower Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) since “Lethal Weapon 3” is that the bantering, bickering LAPD partners have gotten older, just as the actors themselves have thickened in middle age. Murtaugh is about to become a grandfather, courtesy of his daughter’s mouthy cop boyfriend (Chris Rock, providing some very funny stand-up riffs that have nothing whatever to do with the story). Riggs and his fiery “Lethal 3” sweetheart, Internal Affairs officer Lorna Cole (great-gal Rene Russo), have stayed together and Lorna is pregnant. Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) is still a nattering shnook. Veteran producer-director Richard Donner is still turned on by explosions, chases, and showers of bullets ‘n’ stuff.

The strain of carting a creaking premise from situation to situation shows in jibes and staging much coarser than any the “Lethal” series has copped to in the past: Murtaugh panics when he mistakenly thinks his daughter’s beau is coming on to him; thugs hold Lorna hostage with a knife to her pregnant belly. As a set-up for a lesson in social responsibility, the partners take on Chinese gangsters involved in immigrant smuggling and counterfeiting, and Murtaugh temporarily hides a sweet-natured family in his home. Nice. Riggs, meanwhile, makes jokes about “flied lice.” Not nice.

There’s one great benefit to the Riggs-Murtaugh Asian connection, though: The good guys face off against martial-arts star Jet Li, playing a young warlord who speaks little but who, with his delicately expressive face and powerful, balletic moves, makes himself perfectly understood. Whirling and flying in fights, the charismatic actor demonstrates the kind of concentrated vitality that can lift an action movie from the standard-issue to the sublime. When Li is center screen, the ooofs and arggghs of Gibson and Glover add about as much to the ambiance as the hoked-up grunts of professional wrestlers. Why not give the guys a nice party and let them retire these roles with dignity?

Lethal Weapon 4
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