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Why did I watch this? It’s a fair question, given that I just watched Ikiru and seem to use the Criterion Collection as a guide for this little endeavor.

I’ve spent a few years now writing for a magazine called Creative Screenwriting. When you spend the vast majority of your time talking with screenwriters about screenwriting, the screenplay for Lethal Weapon has a knack for coming up in conversation. People extol Shane Black’s dynamic voice, his sense of humor, his ADHD-esque pacing that keeps you breathless and moving forward. And they’re right. They man knows how to write a set-piece, and especially a set-piece that opens a film. The opening scene of Lethal Weapon’s screenplay has a beautiful blonde girl high on cocaine and dropping potted plants onto cars parked some ten stories below. When she runs out of plants, she drops herself. It is structured so well and executed so well, I was immediately smitten. I thought “This is how money happens.” I could hear those executives back in 1985 getting script-boners behind their desks, demanding that their assistants get them in touch with this Shane Black kid.  And then comes the scene where we meet Martin Riggs, the character Mel Gibson would later embody. He beats the hell from a gaggle of fellows and liberates an abused dog. The dog wants to stick with him, but he tells it not to follow him, because he’s no good. The dog persists, and he eventually takes the dog home. This and the potted plants part of the opening scene are not in the movie.

There’s a cliché in screenwriting called “petting the dog” wherein you establish that a character is an asshole, then have them do something small to show that there’s still some goodness to them. In many cases, it’s as simple as having them pet a dog, which is how you get that cliché. I wonder if Richard Donner chose to cut the scene where Riggs saves the dog because he thought it was too on-the-nose. I can see how it would seem that way – hell, as I describe it, it feels too on-the-nose. Still, when I sat down and watched the movie, I missed that scene. Maybe I’m just a Billy Jack fan, but the thrill of meeting a character when they’re whooping wholesale ass in order to liberate a victim is something I enjoy seeing. In the finished film, you meet Riggs in what is his second scene in the script. He wakes up and downs a beer and some pills, profoundly sad and alone. There is a close-up of a picture that shows he was not always alone, thereby underlining just how alone and sad he is. There’s something Man-With-No-Name about having him first walk out of the shadows to avenge a dog, then showing what sort of home life would push this sort of man to do the things that he does. The script is not just interested in telling you a ripping action yarn, it also wants to talk about the kind of people who get involved in a ripping action yarn. Be it family or friends or what-have-you, most of us have some sort of tether to this world, something that gets us to tomorrow. These things instill in us a desire to stay alive, and so we avoid dangerous situations whenever we can. I would never claim Lethal Weapon has any sort of subtlety to it, but I do like that Black seemed to have taken to heart the NRA cry of “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and burrowed in to find some sort of beating heart in that. A battle cry might sound badass, but it ultimately gets at something very dark in us, as things have to go horribly, horribly wrong for us to end up battling in the first place. Those who lead the charge – and thus are the one howling said battle cry – have lost something in the process, and that loss has pushed them to want vengeance on whomever or whatever they deem responsible. A hand that fires a gun does so out of fear, ignorance, hatred, or simple primal nature of dominance. A hunter kills an animal because he views that animal as there for him to eat, and possibly even decapitate so that he may have a trophy. This mindset will never make sense to me, but it doesn’t have to. I enjoy meals that feature meat, and thus feel it wrong to decry hunters for doing their thing. I take issue with them using automatic rifles, but that’s a whole other thing.

I enjoyed the screenplay far more than I did the film, which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the film. Richard Donner’s direction seemed to know the right time to slow things down and let the characters exist in space and relate to each other. The visual language of the film was also interesting, with a fair amount of steadicam opening up scenes to feel like they could go almost anywhere, and we were just tagging along. Not every choice of Donner’s was excellent, but overall I can see why this film was such a phenomenon. But yeah, I miss those potted plants.

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