In this second article on Great Movie Fight Scenes I’ll be looking at the slugfest finale to Richard Donner’s buddy-cop spectacular, Lethal Weapon.
In this sequence street-crazy cop on the edge Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) takes on the mercenary Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey). This fight comes as the payoff to a long set-up. Throughout the film Murtaugh and the audience question Riggs’ mental well-being; early in the film we see Riggs attempt suicide. On the job Riggs is self-destructive in his “shoot first ask questions later” approach to police-work. There’s also a suggestion that Riggs and Joshua are two-sides of the same coin, just as crazy as each another but on different sides of the law.
In building to this climactic donnybrook on the Murtaugh’s front lawn Donner allows these adversaries numerous near-misses. Joshua believes he has killed Riggs in a drive-by shooting but a bullet-proof vest saves the day, Riggs has an opportunity to kill Joshua during a hostage negotiation but is denied the chance to shoot. It’s a desperate rivalry emphasized at the film’s midpoint when Riggs fires round after round at Joshua’s fleeing helicopter.
Donner’s treatment of Riggs and Joshua is interesting when we consider it in the wider context of action movies. Although Mr. Joshua is a bad guy he’s subject to the same rules as Riggs, the film’s hero. Both men are invulnerable to bullets, they’re invincible for as long as they need to be. It’s also fitting that Riggs is the only man who can stop Joshua and vice versa. It’s not all that subtle or believable but it helps to heighten the sense of tension and rivarly going into their final confrontation.
Incidentally, Riggs wanting to fight Joshua man-to-man puts a nice cap on his developing relationship with Roger. He’s willing to protect his friend on his home turf. Earlier when Murtaugh asks:
“Are you as good as you say you are?” Riggs replies:
“You’ll have to trust me.”
This fight exemplifies that trust and solidifies the bond that will keep these unlikely buddies together for three Lethal Weapon sequels!
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There’s a great ebb and flow to this sequence. Gibson has a way of barking out insults that makes the fight feel all the more personal. He barbs and chides Busey as they fight, you have to imagine there’s some element of improv here. We hear Riggs go in and out of talking like this throughout the film, it reminds me of Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist, his speech is all from the throat. Gibson’s delivery does a fine job of intimidating the audience and reinforces Riggs devil-may-care persona.
The camerawork in this sequence is at times quite poor – we’re brought very close to Riggs and Joshua, particularly in the early stages of the fight. For a while it’s all elbows and flailing hands but Donner illustrates things more clearly as the fight progresses. These opening moments, where we can’t situate ourselves in the action bringing us into the fight, we’re made to pay attention and this is then rewarded by the various cuts to long and medium length shots of the action.
Joshua is particularly fond of wrestling movies, he scoops Riggs up a couple of times dropping him hard, the impact is stressed by some good dubbing and reaction shots from Gibson who sells the pain well. We see hints of what Murtaugh mistakenly refers to as tai chi at the beginning of the film. Riggs utilizes quick jabs, and at one point, a jumping knee to score hits on Joshua. Both men use a mix of martial arts but particularly jailhouse rock which speaks to their military background. This sequence also pays off the titular “lethal weapon” as Riggs demonstrates his physical prowess. In fact, an awful lot is made of Gibson’s lower body strength which gives him the edge of Busey. Earlier in the movie he breaks a goon’s neck with his thighs and here he forces Joshua to submit with a vice like hip lock.
I think the whole look of this scene goes a long way to making it one of the more spectacular film fights. The broken fire hydrant spraying water into the air creates a tense atmosphere and localizes this incredible intensity to one suburban lawn. The water also highlights Riggs and Joshua’s physicality. At one point Gibson loses his shirt and adopts a Bruce Lee-like stance his muscles are accentuated by the falling water and spotlighting. Despite its high-stakes there’s something playful about the hyper-reality of this sequence that makes it highly engaging to the audience. When Joshua is finally defeated and Murtaugh quips “get this shit off my lawn” the audience can’t help but laugh with relief.
This fight sequence is the high-point of the Lethal Weapon franchise. It comes off as a little silly but leans into this, ramping up the stakes as the fight progresses. There’s a nice back-and-forth quality to the action and even when Riggs appears to have the upper-hand we still feel as if Joshua can triumph. Donner builds to the final confrontation wonderfully, and though the series would continue to have memorable villains and set-pieces nothing manages to match the intensity, humour and spectacle of this great movie fight.
Check out Part 1 of the series here.
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