Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

Director: Richard Donner

Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Joss Ackland, Derrick O’Connor, Patsy Kensit

If sequels are supposed to be inferior by design, then how does that explain movies like “Lethal Weapon 2”? Coming from one of the most sequel-heavy summers of all-time, where most were just unimaginative retreads of their predecessors, “Lethal Weapon 2” does not fall into the same traps, introducing terrific new characters and proving itself willing to take risks (within reason, as there was still a franchise to think about), managing at different points to be more light-hearted and darker than the first film. Furthermore, it never takes its foot off the gas, and the audience is too excited to be on the ride to care that the plot is quite preposterous.

Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is at a more stable place in his life than he was when we first met him. He’s coming to terms with the death of his wife, Victoria, and has found a friend in his LAPD partner, Roger Murtagh (Danny Glover). Just because he has fun at Roger’s expense doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect the hell out of his friend, as do all of their fellow officers (among them, Jennette Goldstein of “Aliens” fame and Dean Norris from TV’s “Breaking Bad” and “Under the Dome”). At least he’s no longer living on the edge, though his continued willingness to leap into the proverbial burning fire suggests that he could still be pushed to the brink at any given moment.

Having previously thwarted the plans of a drug smuggling ex-Special Forces unit, the latest adversary for the team of Riggs and Murtagh shows up in the form of South Africans protected by diplomatic immunity. These smug, racist pricks laugh as they make illegal shipments of gold krugerrands, trade drugs for a mountain of $1000 bills, and murder police officers who won’t back off as well as employees who either betray or fail them. That any one of these offenses (much less all put together) would not protect them in the real world even in the slightest degree is never meant to enter one’s mind.

Riggs and Murtagh, after failing to make an arrest during the extended chase scene that opens the film, are assigned as the protective detail for a material witness named Leo Getz (Joe Pesci). By sheer coincidence, he had been laundering money for the South Africans, but is now justifiably in fear for his life because he’d been using his gifts for numbers to skim a little off the top of their profits for himself. He figured, incorrectly, that they wouldn’t notice. One of the highlights, if not the best thing about “Lethal Weapon 2,” is Leo. In addition to giving someone for both Riggs and Murtagh to slap down when he’s being a nuisance, Leo also offers hilarious, relatable commentary. Listen to his rant about drive-thru restaurants and tell me you’ve never felt the same way as he does.

During breaks in the gunplay and trading of insults with the South Africans, Riggs takes a further step towards his emotional recovery in pursuing a relationship with the beautiful Rika (Patsy Kensit). Although clearly attracted to him at first sight, Rika is at first reluctant to accept his advances, noticing the wedding band that he still wears. Of course, no relationship comes without certain risks. Rika works as the secretary for Arjen Rudd (Joss Ackland), leader of the South African consulate and #1 enemy of the LAPD.

It’s so true that action movies can succeed or fail based on the strength of their villains. The case could also be made that the reason why sequels fail to measure up is because their villains are at best a pale imitation by comparison. Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan never had a better match than Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio in “Dirty Harry.” No “Die Hard” bad guy could command attention better than Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber. These are but a few examples of action movie antagonists whose magic could not be duplicated, yet there are some cases where the second time is the charm. Although Gary Busey and Mitchell Ryan were great counterpoints to Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the first “Lethal Weapon,” I find that it’s Joss Ackland and Derrick O’Connor who create the slimiest foes which Riggs and Murtagh ever faced. O’Connor plays Vorstedt as a particularly nasty bastard, one who seems to know a bit more about Riggs than he should.

My favorite summer for movies to this day, the Summer of 1989 produced a truckload of sequels amidst its blockbusters; some successful, some not. A few I went to see theatrically, while others I waited to catch onto at a later date. “Lethal Weapon 2” was one of the latter, mainly because I was only seven years old at the time. I can still recall seeing the trailer which, if memory serves, was attached to Tim Burton’s “Batman.” The “Lethal Weapon 2” trailer’s final image of a toilet landing on the hood of a police car is one I never forgot.

Still one of the greatest “potty humor” moments in cinema.

“Lethal Weapon 2” is among that small minority of sequels that either live up to or surpass the original. I don’t know how they did it, but this movie is both more light-hearted and darker than “Lethal Weapon.” There’s a lot more humor, thanks in part to the ingenious creation of the Leo Getz character and to certain running gags like Murtagh’s rapidly disintegrating, formerly brand new car and the suggestive commercial starring Murtagh’s daughter. This sequel also goes to a darker place than previously explored, particularly in the events leading to the final act. It also does a nice job tackling the real-world topic of Apartheid (which only lasted another five years in South Africa). After this, the series faced the same problem as most action series eventually deal with, that surpassing this chapter was likely a futile goal. I enjoy these characters and this story so much that, even if there weren’t a “Lethal Weapon 3” and “4,” I would still feel content knowing that this one is out there.

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