'Lethal Weapon 3' reprises slapstick formula

May 15, 1992|By Stephen HunterStephen Hunter | Stephen HunterStephen Hunter,Film Critic

I've always considered the bottom-feeders of the American film audience to be those dim souls who wander in five minutes or so before the climax and stare at the screen in utter bewilderment. But that trick won't get them into any trouble with "Lethal Weapon 3," which has a starting point and a stopping point but no true beginning, middle or end.

The movie is made up of modular components -- action sequences, seduction sequences, banter sequences -- that are arbitrarily arranged. You could reorder them totally, you could scramble them in a Cuisinart or bounce them down the steps in a basketball, and it wouldn't make a bit of difference.

It's not a story, it's a circus: an arrangement of death-defying acts and comic high-jinx in a variety of rings for our viewing enjoyment. Nothing builds, but some of them are great fun: Particularly amusing is a scene in which Mel Gibson's battered Martin Riggs goes scar for scar and bullet-hole for bullet-hole with Sgt. Lorna Cole (Rene Russo) to the point where the splendor of all that bare ruined flesh turns them on so fiercely that they jointly jump each other's bones. (It's also the movie's idea of "tenderness.")

But some of them aren't much fun at all: too many times our boys respond to danger with the same kind of macho, slap-happy festival of fists and clubs that won Daryl Gates' authentic LAPD worldwide opprobrium. In one sequence, Gibson punches a handcuffed suspect in the jaw, then utters a quip to his pal. I think Chief Gates would like "Lethal Weapon 3," and I don't mean that as a compliment.

It is rumored that the movie has a plot. I could find no such evidence. The proceedings seem to be generated by a certain problem: A corrupt former policeman has stolen 15,000 confiscated guns from the department and is redistributing them on the streets, using the profits to sustain a real estate venture in the desert. That last stroke may seem inane, but it was fitted into the movie because Richard Donner, the director, won permission to torch a housing project abandoned in the S&L scandal. Equally inane, the movie begins with a sequence in which Riggs and Danny Glover's Roger Murtaugh flee a skyscraper just seconds before it implodes on itself and seems to sink into the primal muck. It's neat as all get out, never mind the fact that the skyscraper was actually located in Orlando, Fla. And never mind the fact that it has nothing to do with anything else in the movie.

The Gibson-Glover shtick is also wearing a bit thin. This time, Glover's Murtaugh is nearing retirement -- his eight-days-and-out countdown gives the movie its only shape -- and Gibson's Riggs nevertheless keeps thrusting him into the line of fire, with that callous psycho disregard. So the two spat and spit like the Kramdens. It's funny but it's a reprise, not an advancement. And what is Joe Pesci even doing in the film? He's like a guest comic on the Carson show, doing a routine, not a performance. Only Russo really registers, a karate-kicking, Beretta-blasting Internal Affairs investigator every bit as violent as Gibson. (In fact, he becomes the nurturer).

The action sequences boast an empty spectacle, but they've come to feel almost robotic; it's slapstick with automatic weapons. Stuart Wilson's villain isn't vividly imagined enough to compel interest in his ultimate demise (as opposed to Gary Busey's spooky bad guy in the first installment), and his henchmen are all ciphers.

The movie also traffics in a kind of hypocritical schizophrenia regarding firearms: it sees no problem when the good guys respond to every crisis by hosing down the immediate area with 9-millimeter hollow tips, and it doesn't have a second thought about offering the handgun as the immediate solution to interpersonal problems. At one point, in fact, Gibson pulls his Beretta to scare a jaywalker. But at the same time, it affects a fig leaf of liberal outrage at the proliferation of guns in the black community, and their easy obtainability under laws that are hardly stringent. When is Hollywood go to learn that kids want guns because they see them in movies? The first two "Lethal Weapons" probably sold more Berettas than all the ads in Guns and Ammo combined.

Critic Pauline Kael once reduced the movie formula to "Kiss kiss, bang bang"; "Lethal Weapon 3" is a further de-evolutionary step: it's bang bang bang bang.

'Lethal Weapon 3'

Starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

Directed by Richard Donner.

R-rated.

**

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