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`LETHAL' COMBINATION WORKS; GIBSON-GLOVER TANDEM IS HEART, SOUL OF HIGH-OCTANE COP FRANCHISE.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Daily News Film Writer

Eleven years ago, Ronald Reagan was still president, Tammy Faye Bakker smeared her mascara over husband Jim's indiscretions, and Los Angeles motorists took out their traffic frustrations by taking handguns out of their glove compartments.

One other thing: Mel Gibson had poofy hair.

Gibson wasn't a movie superstar at the time. In fact, he was coming off a string of commercial disappointments that included ``The Bounty,'' ``The River'' and ``Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.'' His next movie, ``Lethal Weapon,'' looked iffy, too. It was a low-budget cop movie co-starring a classically trained actor, Danny Glover, known mostly for his stage work. Warner Bros. didn't think it would be anything special and dumped the movie in theaters in March.

``It was just this little movie written by a 23-year-old (Shane Black),'' says producer Joel Silver. ``Really, it was a B movie with a couple of guys who were potential movie stars. It's funny how it ended up changing everything.''

Indeed. Along with ``Die Hard,'' another Silver-produced movie that came out the following year, ``Lethal Weapon'' set the template for all the big-budget, high-octane action films that have careened into theaters during the past decade of summers. These movies were explosive, loud and, if done properly (which was rarely the case), brimming with jokey banter. Story lines came as an afterthought.

``I defy you to tell me the plot of any of the first three `Lethal Weapon' movies,'' Silver says. ``We just put Mel and Danny into situations and let you enjoy what happens to them.''

It's that potent chemistry between Gibson and Glover that has kept the franchise popular with audiences. Neither actor can explain why they work so well together. Gibson says it's probably something best left unexamined.

``Let's just say that I get him, and he gets me,'' Gibson says. ``We enjoy each other's company, and I think it shows on screen.''

Adds Richard Donner, who has directed all four films: ``I don't want to compare them to Tracy and Hepburn, because it's not the same thing, but I don't know what duo in a lot of years has been able to generate this kind of screen magic. They are simpatico, giving actors, who understand and appreciate each other both on and off the screen.''

If the idea of chemistry carrying an action movie sounds a little quaint, a look back at the films themselves only underscores the notion. There are no computer-generated effects, no use of miniatures. The mayhem, the stunts, the collapsing buildings are all real, an ethos carried over to the fourth movie as well.

``We didn't have any time for that stuff,'' Donner says of ``Lethal Weapon 4,'' which began production in January and wrapped only 37 days ago. ``We had to keep it real. But we've always done that. It's just that this time the time we had for post-production was more obscene that unusual.''

In a summer populated with falling asteroids and a tame lizard movie, ``real'' might have some appeal. At least, that's what Silver would like to believe.

``The `Lethal Weapon' movies have always been about Mel and Danny,'' Silver says. ``We try to add new elements, but it always come back to those characters, where they've been and how much they mean to each other.''

In that vein, we'd like to take a look back at those characters, as well as the demolition, the destruction and the devastation - not to mention the shots of Mel's bare backside - of a series that put ``The Odd Couple'' in a squad car and actually made us care.

``Lethal Weapon''

Released: March 6, 1987

Box office: $65 million

Characters introduced: Suicidal detective Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and his family-man partner Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover).

The bad guys: Ex-CIA rogues turned heroin dealers led by Gen. Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) and his sadistic head thug, Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), who proves his manhood by holding his hand under a lighter flame.

Number of stunt men: 29

Number of people killed: 19

Signs of the times: Lots of talk about how being an '80s man means being sensitive and saying you're sorry - especially after you've plowed the wife's car through the front door of the house.

Catch phrase: From Murtaugh: ``I'm too old for this (stuff).''

Most incongruous moment: After Riggs endures a harrowing bout of electric shock torture, he gets loose and proceeds to snap several necks (including one with his ankles) and engage Mr. Joshua in a furious (and embarrassingly ridiculous) kung-fu battle on Murtaugh's front lawn while half the LAPD stands around and watches.

Quintessential L.A. moment: It's supposed to be Christmas, but people are walking around in shorts under oppressive Southland sunshine.

Shots of Mel Gibson's butt: One. Mel rolls out of bed and looks for a beer in the fridge.

Rating (on a scale of one to three - Stooges): Two. Car chases, cartoon carnage and buddy chemistry make ``Lethal Weapon'' a surprise hit and set the stage for three sequels and countless rip-offs.

``Lethal Weapon 2''

Released: July 7, 1989

Box office: $147 million

Characters introduced: Embezzling underworld accountant Leo Getz (Joe Pesci), dazzling (and doomed) consulate babe Rika Van Den Haas (Patsy Kensit)

The bad guys: South African consulate members dealing drugs for Krugerrands. Deliciously vile, these Aryan apartheid agents are the best baddies (until ``4's'' Jet Li) in the series. They're also neat: The head boss asks an underling to stand on plastic wrap in his office before he has him shot.

Number of stunt men: 35

Number of people killed: 32

Signs of the times: Murtaugh is rebuked by his kids for eating a tuna sandwich because of the drag-fishing techniques that kill dolphins. Bo Jackson is seen in a Nike commercial, saying, ``Another day. Another hobby. Just do it.''

Catch phrase: South African consulate ringleader constantly gets off the hook for his criminal activity by invoking ``diplomatic immunity.'' The last time he says this, Murtaugh shoots him in the forehead and adds, ``Has just been revoked.''

Most incongruous moment: During a car chase in downtown Los Angeles, Riggs hops out and nearly catches the bad guys on foot.

Quintessential L.A. moment: During (yet another) car chase, a criminal is decapitated by a surf board. Later, when Riggs hitches his truck up to the South Africans' hillside home and pulls it down, someone panics and yells, ``Earthquake!'' (Actually, an earthquake would have been a more plausible explanation.)

Shots of Mel Gibson's butt: One. Mel has a steamy love scene with Kensit.

Rating (on a scale of one to three - Stooges): Three. Hyperkinetic movie takes the mindless cop-film genre to its apex. It's a downhill slide into Steven Seagal territory from here.

``Lethal Weapon 3''

Released: May 15, 1992

Box office: $144 million

Characters introduced: Riggs gets a girlfriend, detective Lorna Cole (Rene Russo), who shares his passion for violent behavior and the Three Stooges.

The bad guys: Nondescript renegade ex-cops who steal firearms from a police warehouse and sell them to no-goodniks.

Number of stunt men: 34

Number of people killed: 17

Signs of the times: Riggs siphons gas out of a pickup truck and gags, ``Phooey Exxon''

Catch phrase: Murtaugh and Riggs recycle the ``I'm too old for this (stuff)'' line. Yup, they were running on creative fumes here.

Most incongruous moment: Could it be Riggs driving a motorcycle off an unfinished freeway overpass and surviving? Or Riggs and Murtaugh blowing up a seven-story building and living to tell about it? Or perhaps Lorna kick-boxing a never-ending procession of goons? The movie plays like a nonstop Road Runner cartoon, so it's hard to pick one scene that actually calls upon reality as a backdrop.

Quintessential L.A. moment: During a foot chase at an L.A. Kings hockey game, the blase crowd at the Forum saves its biggest ovation for the freak who runs onto the ice. Later, just as Riggs and Murtaugh start to chase the bad guys down a subway tunnel, a young cop pauses to note, ``I didn't know L.A. had subways.'' You and 8 million other people, kid.

Shots of Mel Gibson's butt: None. But he does strip down to his briefs to compare battle scars with Russo in a scene lifted straight out of ``Jaws.''

Rating (on a scale of one to three - Stooges): Two. But one of them is Shemp.

CAPTION(S):

5 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) How lethal is this `Weapon'?

(Danny Glover and Mel Gibson)

(2) In ``Lethal Weapon 4,'' Danny Glover, left, and Mel Gibson exhibit the same powerful chemistry they had in previous installments of the franchise.

(3) The first ``Lethal Weapon'' in 1987 set the standard for action films.

(4) Mel Gibson bumps into diplomatic secretary Rika Van Den Haas (Patsy Kensit) in ``Lethal Weapon 2 (1989).

(5) ``Lethal Weapon 3'' (1993) spiced up Riggs' life with a girlfriend (Rene Russo).
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 10, 1998
Words:1483
Previous Article:WHAT'S HAPPENING : FILM.
Next Article:`MADELINE' THE MOVIE MANAGES TO DO RIGHT BY BELOVED BOOKS.


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