Lethal Weapon — Creating believable characters in mainstream action movies
How screenwriter Shane Black and director Richard Donner created one of the most loved action movies of the 80s by adding a bit of humanity into the story
Mismatched partners is a movie trope as old as movies themselves and a story about a family man cop partnering up with a loose cannon ready for the mental asylum is not a unique story in itself.
But Lethal Weapon has managed to stay watchable decades past its original premiere in 1987. One of the reasons why Lethal Weapon has captured our attention for so long is the amount of depth there is to the characters.
Martin Riggs (played by Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (played by Danny Glover) are not perfect. They have flaws, vices, and internal demons. This is what makes them ten times more interesting than your average characters in mainstream Hollywood movies.
Screenwriter Shane Black added some small setups and payoffs to provide arcs for the main characters.
However, since this is an action movie, there are some limits of how much a screenwriter can focus on building the characters in the story. After all, the audience paid their admission fee to the cinema expecting a fair amount of exciting gunfights and high-speed car chases. It has to be quick and to the point. And this is where Shane Black excels.
The first time we see Riggs, he’s in a sorry state. Sitting alone in his trailer home drinking heavily and loading his gun ready to blow his own head off. He is looking at a picture of his recently departed wife and is crying. He is hurting, and we feel it with him. Losing a loved one would drive anyone crazy.
So now you know
Soon thereafter we get the suicide jumper scene, where we get the first setup establishing how crazy Riggs really is. Murtaugh angrily drags him into an empty store and confronts him.
“So now you know” — a comment just as much geared towards the audience as towards Murtaugh. Riggs doesn’t care about blowing his head off. Even though he didn’t do it in the scene in the trailer, we see now that he is capable of doing it nonetheless.
I do it real good, you know
About halfway through the movie, we get a subtler setup of Riggs’ character. The following small exchange happens right after Murtaugh invites Riggs over for dinner.
They sit drinking beers in Murtaugh’s boat, reflecting over the progress in their current case. The scene ends with Murtaugh walking Riggs to his car.
Riggs opens up to Murtaugh. Not a lot, but just a little. Losing his wife has, of course, affected his mental state, but he’s lost in the world, trying hard to find his place and find meaning in it again.
This is not the deepest of deep characterizations you will find in modern cinema, nor is it profound in the very sense of the word. However, it works exceptionally well in this context. It works because it gives Riggs a broader tapestry than that of a crazy cop.
I’m not crazy
The final payoff comes right before the movie ends. We see Riggs swinging by Murtaugh’s house to wish him and his family a Merry Christmas. Murtaugh comes out. He says that Riggs must be crazy if he thinks that he’ll sit and eat his wife’s horrible cooking without his partner by his side. And Riggs responds “I’ll tell you a little secret. I’m not crazy”, to which Murtaugh says “I know.”
He’s not crazy — he’s heartbroken. Broken beyond repair. There is nothing left to lose. That was why he didn’t care if he got killed. Nothing matters to him anymore.
He might be able to lead a somewhat normal life again, but he will always be heartbroken nonetheless. And that is relatable, for everyone. And Murtaugh’s “I know” line brings much-needed catharsis for both of them.
Riggs is finally able to tell someone that he’s not crazy and stop acting like it. Pretending to be insane was easier for him than actually acknowledging the pain of losing his wife.
The audience can feel at home in the story when they are given these narrative touchstones.
Sidenote: The final movie differs from the screenplay
It’s interesting that this particular scene was written differently in the screenplay by Shane Black. In the screenplay, it’s not a hollow-point bullet Riggs in carrying around for blowing his own head off, it’s a glass of pills to overdose on.
And the “I’m not crazy” / “I know” isn’t even in the script. I haven’t been able to find out if the scene was improvised on set or changed by someone else during production, so you have to wonder who to give credit for this significant addition of the scene and to the movie as a whole.
I’m too old for this shit
When writing mainstream Hollywood action movies, you cannot go too deep into the characterizations. You also cannot provide extended expositional flashbacks explaining what might have shaped them into who they are today.
It has to be simple, quick and to the point.
And that is why Lethal Weapon is a landmark action movie. The characterization works and works well. It never lingers or becomes too convoluted in its explanation of its characters.
If you as a screenwriter can manage to outline your characters as proficient as Shane Black does it in Lethal Weapon, and at the same time give them a believable arc throughout the narrative, then you are already way ahead of everyone else.
I’m a guy who is bored by shootouts and chase scenes. I’ve seen it all. But this movie thrilled me from beginning to end. Part of that is because I cared about the characters.
Thanks for reading!
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Simon Lund Larsen works at a large toy factory in Denmark by day. He spends his free time trying to figure out why some movies work so much better than others.