Before diving into the analysis, a note about nice round number in the title. Two hundred reviews. I never expected to get this far. The number doesn’t include all the non-review essays, including the History of Adaptations. Thank you all for reading and thanks to Steven Savage, who not only encouraged me to write about adaptations but also supplied web space, and to Paul Brian McCoy, of Psycho Drive-In for picking up the series and providing the visuals you see each week.
Television the past few seasons is taking the lead from the silver screen, with more adaptations appearing. Both DC and Marvel are well represented withy multiple series based on their titles. But comic books aren’t the only source being used. MacGuyver brings back the classic Richard Dean Anderson series, updated for today. Likewise, the Lethal Weapon TV series updates the original movies from the the late 80s to now.
The original Lethal Weapon, released in 1987, starred Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs and Danny Glover as Roger Murtaugh, and was a buddy cop action/comedy/thriller. Murtaugh is a family man, just turning fifty, counting the days until retirement. Riggs is a new transfer from Dover, suicidal since the death of his wife in a car collision. Being Christmas, Riggs’ depression has become far more severe, with his only reason to live being the job. The staff psychiatrist wants Riggs off the force as a danger, but the Captain believes he’s bucking for a disability pension. Riggs and Murtaugh get paired up as partners, then get assigned to a case that started as an apparent suicide. The victim appeared to get high and fell off a building, but the autopsy shows that the drugs were laced with drain cleaner.
As the investigation continues, Murtaugh realizes the truth about Riggs; he is suicidal, taking risks that could get him killed. Murtaugh invites Riggs to meet his family, who adopt him. As much as Riggs is suicidal, he is a family man, just one who lost his family. Seeing the Murtaughs at home and having them welcome him helps him, a little, enough for him to realize that there’s something else to live for.
The victim’s killer is part of a former CIA black operation from Viet Nam. A long shot lead that figiratively and literally explodes in their faces leads Riggs and Murtaugh to the ring. With the two detectives getting closer, the ring, led by former general McAllister, played by Mitchell Ryan, sends his people, including Joshua, played by Gary Busey, out to deal with them, kidnapping Murtaugh’s daughter Rianne, played by Traci Wolfe. McAllister underestimates just how crazy Riggs is, though, leading to the ring’s downfall.
The core of the film came from the strength of Shane Black’s writing, Richard Donner’s direction, and the chemistry between Gibson and Glover as Riggs and Murtaugh. As a pair of buddy cops, it takes them time to get to be buddies, as both have issues that they need to work through. Once they get to that point, they trust each other, though Murtaugh isn’t always sure of Riggs’ plans.
The success of Lethal Weapon meant sequels were going to happen. In 1989, Lethal Weapon 2 brought back Riggs and Murtaugh, adding in Joe Pesci as Leo Getz, a creative accountant and middleman under witness protection while waiting to testify. Guarding Leo means pulling Riggs and Murtaugh off their main case, an investigation into a drug ring headed by a South African* diplomat that leads to Riggs discovering that the accident that killed his wife wasn’t an accident. Lethal Weapon 3, released in 1992, brings back the trio and adds Rene Russo as Lorna Cole, an Internal Affairs investigator working a different side of a case involving the funneling of submachine guns and machine pistols with armour piercing bullets from police storage to the streets through a dirty ex-cop. Lethal Weapon 4, released in 1998, brings back everyone, with Riggs and Murtaugh promoted to Captain, skipping Lieutenant, because the LAPD’s insurance company won’t insure the force if the pair are still working the streets while a Chinese human trafficking ring, overseen by Jet Li as Wah Sing Ku. Throughout the series, the relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh grows, going from assigned partners to true friends.
The movie series was popular, with Lethal Weapon 4 showing the only dip in performance at the box office. Naturally, something popular will get remade. In the case of Lethal Weapon, it was remade as a FOX TV series starting in the 2017-2017 season. Television brings a number of new restrictions. Unlike movies, where ratings exist to help audiences decide what level of sex and violence they are comfortable with, television can’t go to such extremes. Each of the Lethal Weapon films were R-rated, mostly due to a level of violence that prime time television isn’t allowed to air. Adding to the ratings issue, television has a different timing compared to film. While a television episode may run forty-three minutes after removing ads, a season may run up to twenty-two episodes, giving the series time to expand ideas over multiple airings that a movie has to get in during its one two-hour show.
With the Lethal Weapon TV series, there are tricks to get around the restrictions on violence. Imagination works just as well as outright showing the act of violence, possibly more so because the audience is filling in the blanks with its own past viewing experience. Car chases and explosions aren’t considered as violent as a shoot-out with every bullet hit detailed in a shower of blood. Even cutting out the blood reduces the impact of the violence. The other issue, timing, works in favour of the TV series, allowing the audience to see Murtaugh’s relationship with his family more often without it being the focus every episode. Riggs, his deathwish, and his turn around can also be given more depth, spreading the issues over several episodes.
The critical issue with a Lethal Weapon TV series, though, is the chemistry between the leads. In the movies, Gibson and Glover played off each other so well, a remake would be impossible. Yet, in the TV series, the impossible happens each week. The casting of Clayne Crawford as Riggs and Damon Wayans as Murtaugh brings in the chemistry as the two work well together. They may not play off each other the same way Gibson and Glover did, but they do bring a new approach.
Another issue is the passage of time. The pilot episode of the TV series aired almost thirty years after the first movie’s release. In that time, there have been changes in how police departments operate, especially when it comes to officers like Riggs who are suffering from mental health problems. The Captain’s attitude in the first movie, that Riggs is bucking for a disability pension, would have him written up by the staff psychiatrist. Instead, Riggs has regular sessions with the psychiatrist, Dr. Maureen Cahill as played by Jordana Brewster, with her word being what allows him to work. The plots of the first two movies would need heavy rewrites to be adapted as episodes, should the series chose to use them; the end of US involvement in Viet Nam was over forty years ago and Apartheid in South Africa ended in 1991.
The series changes a few details. Murtaugh’s wife is now a defense attorney. Riggs is now from Texas. Murtaugh isn’t so much hoping for his last years on the force before retirement to be quiet; he now has a pacemaker and is under orders from his doctor and his wife to take things easy. These changes don’t affect the core of the show; Murtaugh is still a family man who loves his wife and kids while Riggs is a family man who is despondent after losing his wife in a car crash.
The opening scene of the pilot episode demonstrates this clearly. During a hostage taking after a failed bank robbery, Murtaugh is on scene working to get the situation handled quietly, with the proper people in to talk the robbers into letting everyone go with no one coming to harm. Riggs takes matters into his own hands, delivering a pizza to the robbers and exchanging himself as a hostage.and freaking out his captors by provoking them into shooting him. That wasn’t the way the two met in the movie, but it sums up both characters well. The Lethal Weapon TV series is still, at heart, a buddy cop action/comedy, with one cop wanting to keep things quiet and the other with a deathwish, fighting crime in LA while causing millions in collateral damage.
* In 1989, South Africa was still under Apartheid, a system of government suppressing the black majority by the white minority. In Lethal Weapon 2, Riggs treated the diplomat as being no better than a Nazi. The distraction Leo and Murtaugh cause at the South African embassy is well worth seeing.
The 80s aren’t just fodder for big screen remakes this fall. Alongside MacGuyver and the announcement of a Magnum, P.I. sequel, the silver screen is being mined for new TV series. Among the offerings is Lethal Weapon.
The original Lethal Weapon, released in 1987, starred Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs and Danny Glover as Roger Murtaugh, detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department. They were an odd couple, except instead of one being a neat-freak and the other an utter slob, Murtaugh was a dedicated family man counting the years until retirement and Riggs was so deep in mourning his dead wife and child that he had a death wish. Combined, they solved a difficult case, albeit with extensive and expensive collateral damage in their wake. Lethal Weapon spawned three sequels and introduced Joe Pesci as Leo Getz, providing a break-out role for the actor. As the movies progressed, Riggs found a reason to keep living but still was reckless. Murtaugh loosened up a bit. Together, they fought crime and got the blame for the more expensive happenings in L.A.
This TV season, Lethal Weapon returned as a TV series. Its biggest challenge is to recapture the onscreen chemistry between Riggs and Murtaugh without shying away from the problems each of them have. Gibson and Glover as Riggs and Murtaugh took the buddy cop genre and turned it on its ear. They are a tough act to follow. The new Riggs and Murtaugh, Clayne Crawford and Damon Wayans, are up to the challenge.
One benefit television has over movies is that there is more time to explore a character. The first episode shows how Riggs’ life is shattered and shows Murtaugh as a family man, contrasting them before they even meet. The contrast between them sets up the series. That the pilot takes its plot from the original movies isn’t a problem; adaptations bring a set of expectations and the Lethal Weapon movie series did change buddy cop films*. The pilot keeps the tone of the movies, not altogether serious but also not a comedy. Crawford portrays the loss and pain of Riggs, especially when he’s alone. Wayans fills in Glover’s shoes well, being the family man who has to worry about not just himself but his family if something should happen to him.
The Lethal Weapon TV series hit the mark running, capturing the feel of the movies and taking advantage of the change in format to delve deeper into the character’s lives without changing what made Riggs and Murtaugh an audience draw.
* Arguably, so did 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop with Eddie Murphy, but Murphy’s Axel Foley was just visiting when he was paired with Judge Reinhold’s Billy Rosewood and John Ashton’s John Taggert, who were already a more conventional set of partners.