Is there anything that makes the heart leap lower than the prospect of a 1998 vehicle from the Lethal Weapon factory? Even the Die Hard franchise has more life to it: There’s still a certain mystery to Bruce Willis’ grubby sourness as John McClane, an intriguing hint of something gloomier behind his winces than wisecracks can accommodate. But at the Lethal Weapon plant, what you see, after 11 years, are the rusting remnants of a once innovative model: the braying, bantering, and bickering between stable family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and hot-wired widower Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), LAPD partners and foils; the buddy-buddy love affair that swings, with much self-consciousness, between ostentatious homophobia and moist silent communication; the colorful supporting characters, as fixed in place as a commedia dell’arte theater troupe; and the stunts and explosions and chases and showers of bullets ‘n’ stuff that are the specialty of veteran producer-director Richard Donner.

In Lethal Weapon 4 (Warner Bros.), about the only thing that’s changed in the boys since Lethal Weapon 3 is that Riggs and Murtaugh have gotten older—much older in the past six years—just as the actors themselves have thickened in middle age. (They’re still very attractive men, to be sure, but it’s distracting to worry about their coronary health while they’re being battered and shot at in the course of a day’s work. Shouldn’t they just cash out and discuss pension plans?) 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 but at least let his elders catch their breath between sprints). Riggs and his fiery Lethal 3 sweetheart, internal- affairs officer Lorna Cole (great gal Rene Russo, still an inspired addition to the hormonal mix), have stayed together, and Lorna is pregnant. The partners still disagree about how to do things on a count of three. And while Murtaugh has long felt he’s been “getting too old for this s—,” now it’s Riggs who invokes the punchline.

He’s right. They’re right. All the exploding gas tanks and shattering glass in the world—not to mention the schnooky nattering of Joe Pesci as the obnoxious-but-lovable hanger-on Leo Getz—isn’t enough mojo to keep these engines running. Instead, a team of five screenwriters (including Lethal Weapon‘s Shane Black) cart the plot from situation to situation. And the strain shows in gibes and staging much coarser and more careless than any Riggs and Murtaugh have had to fall back on in the past. Murtaugh fusses and 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—gratuitously nasty moves like that.

As a setup for a lesson in social responsibility, the partners take on Chinese gangsters involved in counterfeiting and immigrant smuggling. And, declaring righteously that “I’m freeing slaves like no one did for my ancestors,” Murtaugh temporarily hides a sweet-natured family in his home. Nice. The harbored clan, meanwhile, stereotypically goes about cooking up delicious restaurant-style food, while Riggs makes jokes about “flied lice.” Not nice.

There’s one great benefit to the Riggs-Murtaugh Asian connection, though: The cops face off against Hong Kong martial-arts star Jet Li, playing a cucumber-cool young warlord who speaks little (Li is new to the English language) but who, with his delicate, expressive face and powerful, balletic moves, makes himself perfectly understood. Standing statue-still and contemplating evil, the Mob prince fingers a string of worry beads that, itself, can be turned into a lethal weapon. But whirling and flying in fights beautifully choreographed by Corey Yuen, the charismatic actor demonstrates the kind of coursing, concentrated vitality that can lift an action movie from the standard-issue to the sublime. (He’s lucky in his American debut: Li gets to display far more dramatic range than was available to his celebrated colleague Chow Yun-Fat in The Replacement Killers.)

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 throw the guys a nice party and let them retire these roles with dignity, a couple of stars playing cops, who entertained us well and can be admired at rest, like vintage cars? C

Lethal Weapon 4
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