As you might have surmised from my past writings, and if you visit my blog, I’m a huge fan of action movies. I’m pretty sure that the gateway film for most people of my generation was either Lethal Weapon or Die Hard. Both franchises are legendary in the genre, and prime examples of what’s great about action films.
Like my Arnold vs. Sly article from last year, this will be more of a comparison piece than anything else. An evolutionary chart, if you will. I don’t want to get too deep into plot details (these films have been around long enough that you should have seen most of them at least once, anyway), but for those of you new to the party:
Lethal Weapon: Cops vs. Vietnam vet drug smugglers.
Lethal Weapon 2: Cops vs. South African diplomat drug smugglers.
Lethal Weapon 3: Cops vs. an ex-cop into weapons smuggling.
Lethal Weapon 4: Cops vs. Triad smugglers. Mainly people and other stuff... I think. Hell, I don’t know.
Die Hard: The prototype—Bruce Willis vs. terrorists in an office building on Christmas Eve.
Die Hard 2: Die Harder: Bruce Willis vs. terrorists in an airport, also around Christmastime.
Die Hard With a Vengeance: Bruce Willis vs. terrorists in New York. Looks to be summer, based on the weather.
Live Free or Die Hard: Bruce Willis vs. terrorists in Washington D.C and the surrounding area. I’m guessing it takes place in the summer, since there’s no rain or snow, and there’s nobody shivering and saying, “Shit, is it cold!”
With that out of the way, let’s begin.
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Stage I: Iconic Beginnings
Lethal Weapon (1987): Directed by Richard Donner, starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, and Gary Busey
In March of 1987, a mid-budget buddy cop film produced by Joel Silver and directed by the man behind The Omen and Superman was unleashed upon the populace. A sleeper hit, it made stars out of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and was (and still is) the best buddy cop movie of all time. Yes, 48 Hrs. is good, and Eddie Murphy is damn funny, but this one has the advantage of a typically bug-shit insane performance from Gary Busey as the primary villain.
Slightly more serious in tone, it gives us a nice rapport between the two cops, with Martin Riggs being a heartbroken burnout who contemplates suicide on a regular basis and generally acts like a nut, and Roger Murtaugh being the stable family man who’s getting self-conscious about his age.
Gibson and Glover have a wonderful chemistry together, and their back and forth routine never gets grating. It helps that both actors are adept at serious dramatics as well as lighter moments, and come off well in both.
This is the main reason the Rush Hour films never did it for me. In that case, the actors are good at lighter moments (though Jackie Chan is the only funny one), but telling Chris Tucker to put on a serious performance is like begging Keanu Reeves to show emotion. It might happen, but it’s not going to be a pretty sight.
Well, there’s that issue, and the fact that, in general, Chris Tucker absolutely sucks!
The series regulars are also set up nicely, with the police captain being played by Steve Kahan (Richard Donner’s cousin), and the police shrink Dr. Woods (Mary Ellen Trainor). They’ll stick around for the next three movies, with running gags for each, and believe me, this franchise is one that grows recurring cast members like crazy.
The action is great, though a little muted when compared with what was to come in later sequels. There’s some nice gunplay throughout, but the real standout is a climactic one-on-one fight to the death between Riggs and Mr. Joshua (Busey). It’s a real showstopper of a fight, though I have my doubts the LAPD would just stand around and let one of their own beat the shit out of... Wait, never mind. Never mind.
The film was the sleeper hit of the year, and naturally, a sequel was bound to happen. More on that later.
Die Hard (1988): Directed by John McTiernan, starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, and Bonnie Bedelia
A year after Lethal Weapon, Bruce Willis was catapulted from the TV stardom of Moonlighting to big screen success with a pokey little movie called Die Hard. With a story setup that was simplicity itself, some great action, a nicely down to earth hero in John McClane, and an awesome villain in Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, this ended up being the sleeper hit of 1988.
I don’t think there’s really much about this film that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll be brief. It’s generally accepted that the movie is simply awesome. Bruce Willis is a cool, realistic action hero, and Alan Rickman is simply superb as the bad guy. John McTiernan directs the action scenes with great flair (and a wonderful lack of reticence when it comes to bloodshed), and there’s a good sense of structure and place in the script that’s reflected quite well in the movie.
The franchise formula is also set up, with the lone hero in a confined space having to fend off bad guys. Hell, it practically invented a goddamn subgenre!
Edge: Die Hard
While Lethal Weapon is a damn fine movie, Die Hard has become iconic. Both films are in the pantheon of great action movies, but longevity counts for a lot. To avoid getting too wordy, let me put it this way. How many “Best Christmas movie” lists have Die Hard near the top? Okay, now how about Lethal Weapon? I rest my case.
Stage II: Bombastic Seconds
Lethal Weapon 2 (1989): Directed by Richard Donner, starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, and Joe Pesci
In July of 1989, the magic was back (as the poster says), and Lethal Weapon 2 was unleashed upon audiences. Adopting a more over-the-top tone with more humor and action, the first sequel pits Riggs and Murtaugh against a band of evil South African drug smugglers who hide behind diplomatic immunity.
Riggs falls in love with a sexy Dutch woman named Rika (Patsy Kensit) who works for the bad guys (but doesn’t like them), and the regular cast gets its first addition in the form of Leo Getz (Joe Pesci, right before he got famous). Leo is fairly high on my list of great Joe Pesci performances; it’s a solid number two behind Goodfellas, and in front of My Cousin Vinny. He serves as the best form of comic relief, in that he not only adds to the plot (by way of an amazing coincidence), but he’s also legitimately funny!
Overall, the movie is even better than the first one, with better action, more humor, and a great pace.
Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990): Directed by Renny Harlin, starring Bruce Willis, William Sadler, Bonnie Bedelia, John Amos, and Dennis Franz
While Lethal Weapon 2 added a few new wrinkles to the franchise, Die Hard 2 is content to basically hit the replay button and give you more or less the same movie. It pretty much replicates the pattern of the first movie, only changing the setting to an airport during Christmas week.
That being said, it’s a solid action movie with typically good work from Willis, and a nice supporting turn from Dennis Franz. It gets the job done, but that’s about it. it suffers from weak villains, and aside from a few bits here and there, it just comes off as more of the same.
Edge: Lethal Weapon 2
It’s Lethal Weapon 2 by a wide margin. Whereas Die Hard 2 is essentially the same movie as the first, Lethal Weapon 2 does away with the bickering buddy cop stuff for the most part, and shifts it into two good friends giving each other epic amounts of crap. The addition of Leo also helps this movie, as now the guys have someone to kick around together.
There’s a little bit of darkness here and there, as Riggs gets a nasty surprise from the bad guys (turns out they killed his wife, sending him spiraling down to the level we found him at in the first film). And since we’re talking South Africa in the late ‘80s, race enters the fray as well.
In general, Lethal Weapon 2 just has better moments that coalesce into a more satisfying viewing experience: The truck chase with Riggs hanging onto the front fender, Danny Glover offing the main villain as he claims diplomatic immunity after shooting Riggs, the toilet bomb gag... there are just too many great bits.