erik lundegaard

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Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)

Imagine that at the height of his popularity Robert Redford agreed to take a small role in a chop-sockie flick in order to prove himself to Hong Kong audiences and studio execs. He is cast as a horrific killer who dispatches family members in front of one another. Eventually our All-American boy gets his comeuppance at the hands of the Chinese hero — and, no doubt, to the cheers of Chinese audiences.

Written by:
Jonathan Lemkin
Alfred Gough
Miles Millar

Directed by:
Richard Donner

Starring:
Jet Li
Mel Gibson
Danny Glover
Joe Pesci
Rene Russo
Chris Rock
Conan Lee

Academy Award Nominations:
None. Was nominated for four MTV Movie Awards, however, including Best Action Sequence, Best Comedic Performance (Rock) and Best Villain. The MTV Movie Awards are good at making the Academy look good.

Now you have some idea what it's like to see Jet Li in this Hollywood abomination. Has the world ever needed anything less than it's needed Lethal Weapon 4? They started piling on the co-stars in Lethal Weapon 2 and show no signs of stopping. First Joe Pesci (for comic relief). Then Rene Russo (for romantic relief). They're both back, competing for screentime with new scene-chewer Chris Rock. He plays a detective, and, unbeknownst to Murtaugh, he's also the father of Murtaugh's... Ah, forget it. Chris Rock is there to do stand-up. Of course whenever he goes into one of his bits, the story grinds to a halt. Given the story, this isn't always a bad thing.

Plot? Silliness. Riggs and Murtaugh are drinking and fishing on Murtaugh's boat when they are nearly capsized by a Chinese freighter steaming toward America. They give chase, exchange gunfire, Riggs boards the vessel and gets his ass kicked martial arts style. But the perps all flee (or die) and Riggs uncovers a cargo full of illegal Chinese immigrants, who, a white INS officer explains, would have worked as virtual slaves for Chinese triad members operating in the states. Now they'll just be deported, he says. This allows Murtaugh to wax moralistic:

Murtaugh: Whatever happened to "Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched masses yearning to be free"?
INS officer: Now it reads "No Vacancies."
Murtaugh (contemptuous): I guess your parents were Native Americans.
Riggs (contemptuous): (nods)

The slave talk so resonates with Murtaugh he becomes a virtual underground railroad by spiriting a Chinese family into his house. "I'm freeing slaves!" he tells Riggs. "Like no one did for my ancestors!"

This family just happens to be the one family that Chinese Triad member Wah Sing Ku (Li) needs for his diabolical plans, and it leads to staredowns in Chinese restaurants and foot-chases through Chinatown and car-chases on the LA freeway. What keeps us watching is the inevitable showdown between Mel Gibson and Jet Li. The Aussie's got to win, right? But how can they possibly make his victory look credible? Here's how: two against one. Plus dirty tricks. In the final fight, the heroes act like villains and the chief villain seems rather heroic. In fact, for all his villainy, Li's character has a quiet strength that the film's obnoxious protagonists can't match. We find out, for example, that Ku's machinations are part of a plot to free his elder brother and his gangsterish comrades from a corrupt general's prison. He meets the elders and shows respect; love for his brother shines in his eyes. When the brother dies in his arms — shot by Murtaugh — it's moving. In the background, Riggs and Murtaugh banter on. Who are these clowns? How did they get in this cool Chinese guy's picture?

Hell, halfway through the picture you're hoping the director focuses on anyone but Riggs and Murtaugh. Two fellow police officers — a Chinese-American and a Serpico-like white guy — are crucial in cracking the case. Hey, they seem interesting! Let's follow them for awhile. No such luck. Instead Riggs keeps pulling practical jokes on the affable but easily-confused Murtaugh. These two in turn keep pulling Pesci's leg. Both Pesci and Chris Rock go ballistic over cellphones. Riggs humiliates a female police psychiatrist in front of the squad. Even the usually classy Rene Russo gets into the act. About to give birth to Rigg's baby, she decides, at the last minute, that she wants to be married first, so she grabs another patient's IV to prevent being wheeled into the operating room. How nice for the other patient, who, of course, becomes the butt of a Pesci joke.

Can these people see or feel for anyone beyond themselves? Next to them, Jet Li's quiet, respectful villainy is quite appealing.

—February 4, 1999

© 1999 Erik Lundegaard