How ‘Lethal Weapon’ Partnered Dark Humor with PTSD

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The action comedy about…heavily damaged Vietnam vets?

Lethal Weapon often gets heralded at the preeminent buddy cop film, despite the fact that the genre existed for decades prior to its 1987 release. So what makes Lethal Weapon the mold-breaker? Is it (then) wunderkind Shane Black’s razor-sharp script? The legendary cast? The quotable quips? Or is that so many members of the audience identified with the characters because they too possibly felt a general sense of being too old for life’s shit?

How about the fact that Lethal Weapon is the Apocalypse Now of buddy cop movies? It’s true, Shane Black’s script is just as concerned with the heavily damaged psyches of Vietnam War veterans as was Apocalypse Now’s. Nearly every major character in Lethal Weapon, hero and villain alike, served in Vietnam and came back with a hefty amount of baggage. While this is reasonable considering the realities of that war, it’s the way Black weaves these heavy psychological repercussions into a rip-roaring action comedy…one you soon realize is more gallows humor than slapstick.

Two mismatched cops go up against a violent drug cartel. Sounds pretty standard, right? Except that what makes those cops mismatched is that one is suffering from a dangerous combination of grief and PTSD that makes him suicidal and the cartel is comprised of former military operatives who maintain a heroin smuggling route from Vietnam. The sinister Mr. Joshua is, very much like Riggs, a character whose sociopathic tendencies were fostered by and flourished during the Vietnam War; making violence his only viable occupation afterward. And then there’s that quippy dialogue we mentioned.

Everyone remembers, “I’m too old for this shit,” and Rigg’s impression of Curly from The Three Stooges. But less quoted is this exchange between Murtaugh and Riggs…

Murtaugh: “God hates me, that’s what it is.”
Riggs: “Hate him back, it works for me.”

We fondly recall Riggs’ wacky antics as he blows away bad guys with ease, but what about the quiet moment outside his new partner’s home wherein he confesses that killing is the only thing he’s ever been good at, and THAT’S why he became a cop in the first place?! While it’s true that he became more of a lovable loon as the franchise progressed, Riggs is as scarred and on-the-edge as John Rambo. Consider the fact that were it not for a quick movement from Murtaugh, Riggs would have killed himself in the middle of the workday directly after he jumped off a building handcuffed to a man threatening to commit suicide. There’s crazy, and then there’s damaged.

But damaged is exactly how Shane Black likes his characters, and it is the firm believe of the hosts of the Junkfood Cinema podcast that Black must have had a close relationship (either friend or more likely family member given his age) with someone who was irrevocably broken by Vietnam. He is a screenwriter who, at such a young age, seemed intimately acquainted with those specific scars.

Lethal Weapon remains an action standard and one full of effective comedy beats, but equally effective is its examination of the consequences of America’s most controversial war. In that way, while a massive hit for Richard Donner, Lethal Weapon could have just as easily have been directed by Oliver Stone.

For more musings on Lethal Weapon, including its even darker deleted scenes and the many actors who turned down the role of Riggs, download and listen to this week’s episode of Junkfood Cinema. We’re kicking off our Summer 0f 87 series wherein we’ll be examining all the best and junkiest films of that landmark year!

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  • The Main Course[4:09–1:08:26]
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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.