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[whitespace] Lethal Weapon 4
Andrew Cooper

The Subtext Is Becoming Text: Riggs and Murtaugh undergo extreme male bonding one more time.

'Lethal Weapon 4' has action--and heart

By Zack Stentz

Who would have ever thought aficionados of the action film would look to a Lethal Weapon film as a model of restraint? But after the soulless pummeling of Godzilla and Armageddon, watching a movie that actually take breaks for humor and character development between gun fights and car chases comes as a relief and makes Lethal Weapon 4 the first summer blockbuster I haven't left feeling vaguely ripped off. Right from the opening scene, a well-staged riff on last year's North Hollywood shoot-out involving a body-armored nut with a flame thrower, we know we're back in a peculiar universe where characters deliver wisecracks and share tender moments with each other even while being shot at with automatic weapons.

Sure, Mel Gibson's beginning to lose his moves along with his looks (must be that Australian sun), and the franchise's trademarked "crazy cop and his family-man partner" shtick is showing its age, but the easy chemistry he shares with costar Danny Glover remains a delight to watch, the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. And the addition of loudmouthed comedian du jour Chris Rock may have been a marketing decision to keep the kiddies interested, but the writers at least had the decency to let him cut loose with Lethal Weapon veteran Joe Pesci in a couple of hilarious scenes. The always watchable Rene Russo also reprises her role from LW3 as Gibson's ass-kicking love interest (very pregnant here), but there's no doubt as where the true passion in the series lies. As Murtaugh cradles partner Riggs in his arms after yet another rescue from the jaws of death, the film's subtext (to paraphrase Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Giles) is in danger of becoming text.

In case anyone's interested, the bad guys here are the Triads, Chinese gangsters who counterfeit currency, smuggle slaves, commit murder and otherwise work to undo all the goodwill built by Clinton's visit to Beijing. Clearly aware that they're on politically dangerous ground here, the filmmakers carefully add sympathetic Chinese characters and an incongruously pro-immigrant stance, even while engaging in some rather offensive anti-Asian humor. Matters aren't helped when the soundtrack lurches into pseudo-Oriental noodling during an extended foot chase through L.A.'s Chinatown.

One could read the choice of villains here as the series' latest broadside against liberal Hollywood's Tibet-oppressing bête noires, in keeping with the previous films' attacks on drug-running CIA men, Afrikaaners and corrupt cops. (The contradictions embedded in the making of a liberal action film are too numerous to list in full; celebrating the power of modern firearms while taking shots at the NRA, condemning police brutality while playing the heroes' violations of suspects' rights for laughs, etc.) Then again, it was probably just an excuse to work in the supersonic hands and feet of Hong Kong action star Jet Li, who plays the main bad guy with a ferocity that goes a long way toward rejuvenating the franchise. Without spoiling the climax, let's just say it involves the first action-movie fight I've ever seen in which the heroes outnumber the villain, but the outcome's still in doubt. For a sensitive look at the nuances of Chinese culture, stick with Mulan, but for some big, loud work of summer entertainment with an actual human heart beating at its core, you could do a lot worse than Lethal Weapon 4.

Lethal Weapon 4 (R; 125 min.), directed by Richard Donner, written by Channing Gibson, photographed by Andrzek Bartkowiak and starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Jet Li and Rene Russo.

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Web extra to the July 9-15, 1998 issue of Metro.

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