FILM / Cutting up gruff: Leathal Weapon 3

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Ten years ago, in 48 HRS, Eddie Murphy addressed a bar full of startled country and western fans with the memorable remark: 'I'm your worst nightmare . . . a nigger with a badge.' If that is America's worst nightmare, perhaps that explains why its fondest dream, judging by the success of the Lethal Weapon films, seems to be . . . a redneck with a badge.

In the first film of the series, Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) had two reasons for his loose-cannon temperament: service in Vietnam and the death of his wife. His recklessness was really only despair. Since then, as is the way with sequels, any background of motivation has fallen away. If Riggs in Lethal Weapon 3 (15) is still a compulsive rule-flouter and risk- taker, treating every confrontation as a round of Russian roulette, he no longer seems to need excuses. That's just the way he is.

Richard Donner directed all three films, and it shows in the way the central relationship, with its practised buddy-buddy banter, has come loose from inner-city story-lines that still have some pretension to grittiness. The director takes the likeability of his heroes for granted, and feels no need to establish it from scratch. The results can be jarring. In one early scene the two policemen, demoted temporarily to patrol duty, harass a citzen for jay-walking. Riggs can't understand how to fill in the report form, while Murtaugh (Danny Glover) can't read it without his spectacles. So Riggs waves his gun about until the wrongdoer is terrified into running off, thus solving the problem of procedure.

This scene works so poorly because it hasn't occurred to anyone making the movie that an audience member might identify with an anonymous jay-walker, when there are Mel Gibson's blue, blue eyes to be stared into. At least in the first film Danny Glover would have been directed to express horror or dismay, before being perhaps being led to see the funny side of the incident. But in this debased copy of a formula, where all the seams show and nobody minds if you notice, he is cracking up by the time Joe Citizen scuffles off, in terror of those who are paid to protect him.

Hollywood deals in fantasy, of course, not least when it is portraying the city of which it is part, but the fantasy must have some prospect of reassuring, if it is to work. It must be canny fantasy. The LA riots had not taken place when Lethal Weapon 3 was filmed, but the Rodney King beating presumably had. Yet the film seems to feel no unease at celebrating the maverick characteristics of a police force whose real life namesake, the LAPD, has long had a reputation for violent racism. It seems to be enough just to show racism not being an issue.

When a black youth is shot dead, it is by a black policeman, Murtaugh. Though the shooting is in self-defence, the film chooses this moment for him to have one of the crises of conscience indispensable to the formula. The dead boy was a friend of his son Nick, and Murtaugh feels unable to face him, choosing instead to hide out in his boat and get drunk. When he does summon up the courage to face his son, everything is fine. He is able to give the young man some tips on shaving with the grain, not against it, before they go to the funeral together. Nick says he doesn't blame his dad, he blames his friend. At moments of ersatz resolutions like this, Lethal Weapon 3 looks a lot like The Cosby Show with guns.

You'd think that the one thing a buddy-buddy film on its second sequel, dealing with the professional marriage of two policemen who work as partners, would have to have worked out the would-be dynamic of male bonding. But in fact Lethal Weapon 3 shows that unease about the ambiguous status of such a relationship can never be banished for good, and must be disavowed on a regular basis. Early in the film Riggs, entering the Murtaugh kitchen, kisses his partner's daughter and wife and then extends the same courtesy to Roger himself, with a mumbled 'good morning Rog'. He makes as if to kiss young Nick also, who backs off. Riggs joshes cutely, 'What's the matter, didn't you brush your teeth this morning?'

This doesn't break the rules of male bonding in the movies, which are: 1, a man's affection for another man must be a joke; 2, if sincere, it must make its object cringe. Otherwise, where would we all be?

So in Murtaugh's darkest, drunken hour, Riggs is there for him, saying for instance, 'I've got three beautiful kids - they're yours.' But when Murtaugh starts to respond, saying 'I love you, man' and patting Riggs' cheek, Rule 2 is momentarily in danger. Donner heads off this possibility by directing Gibson to play the whole scene with a palpable insincerity, all but rolling his eyes to indicate 'The things I have to do to keep my partner on the road]' This insincerity makes no sense in terms of character, but Rule 2 is a stern taskmaster. Luckily the scene ends in misunderstanding, a fist-fight and wisecracks, and the moment of unease is passed for the time being.

Still, for all its ritual qualms, the central relationship is a model of plausibility compared to the love interest the script (by Jeffrey Boam) comes up with for Riggs. She's Lorna (Rene Russo), she works for Internal Affairs, the police's own police, she's as skilled as fighter and as reckless a risk-taker as he is. It's just that her quip after a bout of violence is likely to refer to Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. That's as feminine as her behaviour (as opposed to her looks) is allowed to get.

In one scene, Riggs and Lorna get close by comparing scars. This would be a funny scene in a film like Prizzi's Honor, where the characters would be innocent, at least to start with ('Feel that texture . . . cheese-grater time'). Here they both know exactly what they're doing all along, and it's just one more cute bit in a movie full of cute bits. In no time at all, it's that condom moment for Riggs and Lorna - not only that, but there's a Spanish guitar on the soundtrack, which as all movie buffs know can only mean Commitment.

There's more emotional truth to a scene where Riggs befriends a supposed attack dog. (Lorna's afraid of dogs - it's her prescribed concession to girliness and dependence.) As he says to Lorna, curled up with his new friend, 'This is a guy sort of thing.' Here at last is male bonding without fear. Emotion is best dealt with, gruffly, between males. Women, notably the counsellor at the Department who wants Murtaugh to talk about his feelings after killing someone, don't understand that.

In Lethal Weapon 3 a successful formula starts to dissolve through repetition. The things you're supposed to be affected by slip right past, while the odd incongruous detail lodges in the memory. At one point, for instance, it is revealed that video cameras have been installed in interrogation rooms for months without the policemen who do the interrogations being told. It's only a plot point, and it passes without comment. Logically, Riggs should shudder at the idea of his rule-breaking, maverick techniques being recorded. It's a brief moment of something like realism, in what is otherwise one long, unpaid and highly ineffective commercial for the Los Angeles Police Department.

(Photograph omitted)