Rated R - Running time: 2:07 - Released 7/10/98

Who would have thought that Lethal Weapon (1987), a so-so action picture with a few clever lines, would ever have evolved into what it has become. At this point, putting Danny Glover and Mel Gibson together under the LW banner would probably be profitable no matter what kind of trash was produced. Fortunately, what is produced by director Richard Donner is definitely not trash; in fact, this series has matured over the years just like its characters. Lethal Weapon has mutated from a brainless shoot-em-up into a well-rounded character study, adding new wrinkles (literally) along the way, and allowing us to watch the characters expand into 3-dimensional people we actually care about.

The addition of a new principal character for each film has helped this series immeasuably: in LW, we had only an odd-couple of detectives: Roger Murtaugh (Glover), a family man who hates to take chances, and Martin Riggs (Gibson) a suicidal psycho who doesn't care and therefore loves extreme risk. In LW2 (1989), the irritating-but-lovable Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) was added, enhancing the humor aspect and elevating what would have been an abysmal sequel to at least the level of the first. By LW3 (1992), we were introduced to Lorna Cole (Rene Russo), the internal affairs cop who first suspects our duo of wrongdoing, but ends up as a third partner and Riggs's love interest. And now, in LW4, we have detective Lee Butters (Chris Rock), whose involvement with Murtaugh's now-adult daughter Rianne (played all four times by Traci Wolfe) adds a next-generation feel to the story.

The only problem I can see is for fans of the original film: the 1987 premise has virtually evaporated, and those who liked the first film for that device will be sorely disappointed. Gibson's Martin Riggs was really over his psychotic episode in LW2, and is now a full fledged family man with a wife and a baby on the way.

In fact, the family theme is so prevalent in this film it is practically driven home with a sledgehammer. Penned by Channing Gibson, it would almost be a "family film" except for violence and excessive use of the f-word (which, to be fair, is not written but ad-libbed).

In an action-oriented plot that seems included only as a side issue to the interpersonal relationship story, a group of illegal Chinese immigrants is discovered by our guys while trying to enter the country. But we soon learn that this isn't just a regular boatful of refugees; their passage has been bought in exchange for a kind of indentured servitude. Much like the old slaving days, the people on board will be "sold" to work off their ticket fare, perhaps for many years. When Murtaugh learns this, he can't help but associate it with the fates of his forefathers, and he decides to help a family by illegally adopting and smuggling them into the country.

But this was the wrong family to mess with. Their transport was arranged by killer Wah Sing Ku (Jet Li), in exchange for the exquisite artistry of another family member who is forced to produce counterfeit Chinese money against his will. The family is kidnapped from Murtaugh's home, and his own family is nearly killed in the process. So even as Riggs and Murtaugh await the arrival of their child and grandchild, respectively, they must get involved in another extremely dangerous pursuit to rescue the hostage family and bring justice to the perpetrators.

As usual, this film's action sequences are full of discrepancies, and, though exciting, sometimes go on until you're saying, "enough already!" The bad guy plot is dull and tiresome; the real charm of the film lies in its comedic elements and character relationships. The usual style of partially ad-libbed dialogue between the principals is used to great effect, and after 11 years together, the team clicks along like a well-oiled machine. Murtaugh's four family members have been played by the same actors all along, so we get a sense of the kids growing up in real time, and they are quite comfortable together. The bond between Riggs and Lorna also deepens. The ending is more like a romantic comedy than a cop thriller, but that style works better anyway. The only thing that doesn't fit now is the title. The next sequel can't possibly be called LW5. It'll have to be something like Three Men & Two Babies. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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