FILM / Another bloody buddy movie

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The Independent Culture
EVEN the title troubles me. Lethal Weapon 3. Why does this weapon keep coming back for more? You didn't catch Gary Cooper returning to make High Twenty-Five Past Two. Something here smacks of unfinished business. If this weapon is so lethal, how come anyone is left alive to be lethed? Just how lethal was it in the first place, anyway? Maybe it's broken or something. These are deep questions, and we all have a right to be concerned.

Lethal Weapon kicked off with people jumping from high ledges; Lethal Weapon 2 tried to have credits, but only got as far as the title before a car chase burst through, like someone spilling their drink on you instead of shaking hands. By those standards, the new opening is demure; horribly tasteful, in fact, like a mid-Seventies Bond film. We sit through a yearning song by Sting, while the screen is licked by placid flames - a soft sell, considering the rowdy flamboyance to come.

But addicts need not fear (and boredom is all they do fear, certainly not fear itself). Soon afterwards, something violent happens to a very large building. Pointlessly, harmlessly violent: barely violent at all, in fact, more like Bonfire Night. With nothing to flinch from, we can watch and coo at our leisure. Destruction on the grand scale is easy to take; only down among the small fry does real pain bare its teeth, which is more than this film dares to contemplate. It may roar along, but it's one hell of a cowardly lion.

The stars are fixed in their orbit, the odd couple of cops. Riggs (Mel Gibson) is the capering devil with the sea- blue eyes; Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is the family man dreaming of retirement, taunted by everyone - his partner, the guys at the office, the guy behind the screenplay - for being slow and creaky. Imagine, he can't even do martial arts, the old snore] Together, Riggs and Murtaugh set out to clean up the streets of Los Angeles, which don't look very dirty to begin with. No drugs, no riots, and how could you have racial fury in a film whose heroes prove the togetherness of black and white?

The toughest assignment is to find a worthy villain who can match their love of guns. In a superbly misplaced effort to flash some liberal credentials, Lethal Weapon 2 came up with a deranged South African diplomat. But at least he was played by Joss Ackland, who gave us the benefit of his searchlight stare and subterranean growl. Now all we get is Travis (Stuart Wilson), whose main crime is to have built a naff housing estate on a patch of semi-desert. He is also an ex-cop - thrown off the force after repeated instances of brutality, says the script, which long ago promoted Riggs to the status of delectable hero on precisely the same grounds.

It is odd to watch Mel Gibson in these movies, the way they boil him down to essentials: a grin, a wink, a sprint. The director, Richard Donner, has stripped him of perplexity - think of Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously - and left him suspended in thoughtlessness. The Lethal Weapon movies feel frantic, but they betray a great tradition: the Hollywood man of action. Think back on your favourites and you see them, strangely enough, in repose: Eastwood shifting the cheroot across his mouth, McQueen alone in the cooler with ball and mitt. These are men waiting for action, who won't fail us when it happens, and that loaded patience is what gives us such a kick.

Donner is too dumb to see that; he just keeps Gibson on the move - a middle-aged star turning back into a teenager, the show-off with freestyle hair. The film has to quieten him down at some point, of course, but what happens then is even worse. He and Danny Glover get drunk, fall off a boat and declare lads' love to each other: 'You're the only friend I got . . . my problems are your problems.' Screen friendships used to be a question of doing things together; now you have to stop doing them, sit down and discuss how the friendship is going. Somewhere between Rio Bravo and Lethal Weapon, probably around the time of Butch Cassidy, directors began to treat social interplay as if they had heard about it but never seen it for real. The modern blockbuster is a strictly two- speed affair: a few buddy-buddy interludes, and the rest is bloody-bloody.

Tagging along behind is the poor old plot. Very little police work gets done in Lethal Weapon 3; nothing comes together, because nobody clicks. Donner is such an old hand at set pieces that he can't bear to let a simple action slip by; when Danny Glover gets into a car, the camera tracks past him and hurtles round to the bonnet, like a baboon in a safari park. The film is so exhausted by this, however, that it forgets to lash the climaxes together. Instead, we get joke links: Riggs keeps crunching dog-biscuits, say, so Murtaugh says he should eat some proper food and makes him a hamburger (huh?). While Riggs is waiting for it, he looks up and just happens to see a man with a gun and a girl . . .

Lethal Weapon 3 makes a nice loud evening out, but the thrills drift in and away at random. Is that it? Nothing else? Well, Joe Pesci rehashes his dippy estate-agent role from Lethal Weapon 2. This time his hair has turned bright white, in shock at how little he has to do. Then there's love, of a sort - a half-clothed fumble between Riggs and the woman from Internal Affairs (Rene Russo). It begins when they compare battle scars, a neat scene which would be even neater if it weren't lifted straight from Jaws. Lastly, the one-liners; you must hear those. Like when a cat jumps on a booby- trapped car, and Riggs says, 'nearly a CATastrophe'. I nearly died. Lethal.

Without You I'm Nothing is a record of a one-woman show by the American performer Sandra Bernhard; but only just. In other filmed shows - Richard Pryor, Robin Williams - you get the full sweaty routine, plus a crowd howling for more. Here everything is staged and poised, often beneath a lonely spotlight. When Bernhard wraps up a song, she throws her arms wide and her smile even wider, ready to glug the love of her fans. And nothing happens. They sit there embarrassed at club tables, murmuring into their wine. It's a dangerous stunt: if they don't know how to respond, how should we?

The film is split into spiels, one character after another telling us about her life and finally bursting into song. The people she plays are certainly more than types; like all good satirists, she likes to bulk her targets out with imaginative flesh before she mocks them, and even then seems drawn to their silly dreams. Think of a Jewish bisexual Joyce Grenfell with Mick Jagger's lips, and I'm afraid you're halfway there.

So we get the Barbie girl in a silver shift, moody for 'a little bit of Burt'. The homage to Patti Smith, 'who saw so far into the future she could afford to take 10 years off'. And the Manhattan hostess, a pearly rake who should be crooning Gershwin, but ends up singing country because of the Navaho rug she bought from Andy Warhol's house sale. Not all of them work, and as her Diana Ross act proves, the Bernhard voice isn't strong enough for a direct take-off. But the movie stays tight and cool, and leaves us with a simple problem: who is Sandra? What is she? Without us, she may be nothing; but even with us, no one can be sure.

'Lethal Weapon 3' (15): MGM Chelsea (352 5096), Fulham Rd (370 2636), Haymarket (839 1527), Oxford St (636 0310), Shaftesbury Ave (836 6279) & Trocadero (434 0031), Odeon Marble Arch (723 2011), Camden Parkway (267 7034), Coronet (727 6707), Screen on Baker St (935 2772), Screen on the Green (226 3520), Whiteleys (792 3303). 'Without You I'm Nothing' (18): ICA (930 3647). All numbers are 071.