Why Lethal Weapon 3 Was So Bad That It Destroyed A Great Franchise In Mere Minutes

I love Lethal Weapons 1 and 2. I think they influenced my life in ways I’m not sure I can or should quantify. They are at the pinnacle of the modern action genre; a perfect one, two punch. The original Lethal Weapon invented the modern template for the buddy/cop film and made stars out of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Lethal Weapon 2 is arguably one of the few sequels to best the original and Joe Pesci resurrected his career with his (IMHO) Oscar worthy performance. 2 also gave us some of the most hissable action film villains in those arrogant, racist, South African diplomats (Joss Ackland’s sneering “diplomatic immunity!” is etched in memory). Best of all, it did what a sequel should– it continued the story and took these characters in new directions, rather than retread the previous films.

I saw Lethal Weapon 3 opening night, May 15th 1992. It was because of youth, perhaps, that I lacked the intellectual tools to fully express what I felt when it was over. Maybe it was disbelief that they had fumbled the ball so badly. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to watch this movie and admit out loud, “This movie fucking sucks really hard!” And it hurt to say it because…this was a Lethal Weapon movie.

It’s literally the opening scene of Lethal Weapon 3 that ruins what was once a beautiful thing to me. Riggs and Murtaugh arrive at a call– there’s a bomb in an office building. However, the police have already secured the scene, evacuated the necessary parties and the bomb squad is en route. Murtaugh agrees it’s under control and turns to leave. But Riggs really wants to try and defuse this bomb. He insists, even. And so they go inside, and against Murtaugh’s repeated warnings, Riggs tries to defuse the bomb and fails. They run away from the building as it completely collapses in an over-the-top, spectacular fashion. And it’s now clear that this franchise no longer takes these characters seriously or even understands who they are. We know Riggs has always been a little reckless, a little wild, maybe lets his anger get the better of him at times. This is first time we’ve seen him do something utterly stupid and unnecessary with no motivation. He’s not suicidal anymore. He’s not in a blind, vengeful rage. There is no logical reason for him to even WANT to defuse this bomb. This is not Riggs doing something wild and dangerous in the heat of the moment, this is him doing something childish.

Yeah, watching a building collapse is impressive. But they didn’t have to ruin a character to have their big opening grabber. You could have easily shuffled events so that Riggs and Murtaugh are forced to go in. Maybe there are still people in the building and the bomb squad won’t get there in time. Riggs’ Special Forces experience with mercury switches and the like makes him the most qualified for the task. Then you can have your grabber and Riggs is still the character we know and love and the movie maintains a relatively adult sensibility. But no. It only the opening scene of the third movie and Lethal Weapon has become a parody of itself.

And what happens in the very next scene? Riggs and Murtaugh are busted down to traffic duty because of the bomb debacle. Isn’t that great? How funny! We don’t need to take these characters seriously anymore.  While it is a likely outcome of the previous scene’s events, it’s more akin to Police Academy than Lethal Weapon. So yeah, Riggs and Murtaugh are now cutting parking tickets and the characters are complete jokes and at the mercy of a film the tone of which is so wildly off it’s comparable to Beverly Hills Cop 3. Except unlike that film, Lethal Weapon 3 has mostly the same creative team as the first two so what’s the excuse here?

And you think it can’t get worse but then they stop a jaywalker and things devolve to Riggs pulling his gun, threatening to kill him and make it look like suicide. Hilarious…Not only is this gag a boring cliche, this film came out on May 15th of 1992. That’s a little over two weeks after the LA riots. Savvier filmmakers might’ve understood this scene was in poor taste and snipped it out. Even savvier filmmaker might’ve realized police brutality never funny in the first place…

Savvy has left the building from here on out. It’s one poorly thought out decision after another and the movie (and franchise) does not recover. The scene right after the pedestrian accosting has Riggs hanging off an armored car while Murtaugh follows in another armored car driven by a stereotypical, big, randy, black women who molests him the whole time. And we’re now aspiring to the level of panache demonstrated on ABC’s TGIF lineup.

Rather than belabor this, I’ll simply list some more of the specific things I hate about Lethal Weapon 3.

-Pointless rehashing. You know how many action sequels will just repeat the same things you liked last time? You liked Joe Pesci in the second one? Well you got him again, even though his presence is completely unnecessary to the story and his scenes are inserted at random for no reason other than for Riggs and Murtaugh to pull strangely sociopathic pranks on him. Remember that part in 2, when Riggs demonstrated that he could pop his arm out of its socket at will and it came in handy at a key moment? Well, you get to see him do it again. Except there’s no good reason for him to do it this time.

-Boring villain. Stuart Wilson has been fine on many occasions. But in the last film we had racist Apartheid loving South African diplomats who murdered half the LAPD, Mrs. Riggs, as well as possible future Mrs. Riggs. An illegal gun-selling cop doesn’t come close. But boy does the movie try to convince you he does. He sells guns to kids! And one of those kids turns out to be Murtaugh’s son’s friend! We meet this kid briefly, but it’s for mere seconds and basically to establish him as a plot point. Murtaugh has to shoot him later and is very upset about it. Several scenes after this, Murtaugh will callously chuck an ax into a guy without batting an eye, but I guess that guy was never a guest in his house. After the jokey tone the film has established, taking a right turn into serious social commentary is completely unearned and a little offensive. But that’s not even the saddest attempt to well up some animosity for the baddie. That comes in the character of some eager, young beat cop who our heroes keep bumping into. I don’t even remember his name, nor do I need to. His sole purpose is to get killed and give Riggs a reason to get even. In the previous film, you got his dead wife, his dead new girlfriend and several dead colleagues for motivation. Here you get Officer…s…umm…

-Lorna Cole. I always liked Rene Russo. She’s inherently likable, so it takes some doing to actually make her unlikable. She’s an internal affairs cop who’s so overbearingly cartoonish in her tough demeanor that I couldn’t buy anyone putting up with being in the same room with her let alone falling in love with her like Riggs does. It was 1992. I guess we were still figuring out how to depict tough women on screen. And in this vain, she’s given lots of fight scenes to show how tough she really is. And to this end they inadvertently establish her character as basically invincible. I guess the filmmakers were afraid to show a woman get hit so her fights consist of her completely dominating multiple opponents at a time. There’s two or three of these. I lost count after the first one. I’m not saying I want to see a woman get hit. Action scenes need stakes or you’re not emotionally invested in them. I never feared for her safety as she was obviously never in any danger and the uninspired choreography was basically the NES game Kung Fu come to life. Guys run at her, she kicks them away. At one point even Riggs just stands back and simply watches.

-Lame action. There’s not a notable action scene in this whole movie. I really couldn’t describe one of them in any detail. That’s not a joke. I really can’t.

Lethal Weapon 3 is a terrible movie. As for Lethal Weapon 4, that highway chase was probably the most impressively staged sequence in the series and the fight scene at the end with Jet Li is impressively brutal. So it’s better than 3. So is Police Academy.