In the US: Wednesdays, 8/7c, Fox
In the UK: Acquired by ITV. Will air this autumn
I love Lethal Weapon. I really do. Despite the constant repeats of Die Hard at Christmas and a general moving by society away from movies associated with Mel Gibsonsince his ‘incidents’, to me, it’s the best and most important of the 80s action movies.
I could probably even write a thesis about it, it’s so important. Written by Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3), ostensibly it’s a buddy-buddy cop movie in which the ‘lethal weapon’ of the piece – Gibson, a former special forces soldier who’s now suicidal following the death of his wife – is partnered with the soon-to-retire Danny Glover, eventually becoming friends after fighting drug smugglers. In actuality, it sees aimless American men wondering what their purpose in society is, now that the Vietnam War is over, with Gibson’s burn-out on one side, Mitchell Ryan and Gary Busey’s amoral army of mercenaries on the other. It debates the nature of the ‘new man’ and whether unreconstructed men should aspire to be what society needs, and eventually crafts out a purpose for the left-behind: Gibson’s trailer park trash who was ‘only ever good at one thing’ (killing) is able to put aside his suicidal tendencies by using those skills to help others when needed.
Of course, that was the 80s and the debate has now evolved. So did Lethal Weapon, itself evolving from a semi-serious piece into an almost outright family comedy that could comfortably accommodate Chris Rock, Joe Pesci and Rene Russo in its ranks.
It’s this latter incarnation of the franchise that Fox’s new TV adaptation is largely channelling, but pleasingly, there are still traces of that original darker tone to the show. Based loosely on Shane Black’s original script, it sees Clayne Crawford (Rectify) take on the Gibson role, Riggs now being a Texan former Navy SEAL sniper turned cop who’s on the verge of becoming a father when his pregnant wife is killed in a car crash.
Relocating back to his wife’s home town of Los Angeles, he’s partnered with Damon Wayans (In Living Color), an older cop just returned to work after having a heart attack. Neither’s keen to work with the other at first, particularly once Wayans learns that Crawford has a death wish, but through various developments and stunt scenes directed by series exec producer McG (Charlie’s Angels), they slowly forge a bond together.
Although the Lethal Weapon movies eventually became one big family with a continuing ensemble, don’t be too surprised that for a series, that ensemble becomes even larger. The Murtaugh family comes through the transition intact, albeit with different ages. Jordana Brewster (Dallas, Fast & Furious) takes on the late Mary Ellen Trainor’s role as Crawford’s psychiatrist, while Tony Plana (Ugly Betty, Madam Secretary) takes on the new role of Crawford’s father-in-law.
Given that Wayans is largely known for comedy, you might be expecting the show to be nothing but buddy-buddy laughs. However, Crawford is the main focus of the show. As well as capitalising on Riggs’ sharpshooting and martial arts skills, the TV adaptation still puts his death wish high on the show’s feature list.
As you might expect, given the 30 years’ time difference, there are tonal differences, particularly in the attitudes to former military. Special forces aren’t as mysterious as they were and attitudes to the armed forces are different – the wounds of the Vietnam War to the American psyche are different to those from Iraq. Wayans’ son wants to enlist ‘for the experience’, and Crawford is ‘happy’ to point out that’s a great idea if the experience you want is seeing your best friend shot in the head.
Also new is the culture gap between California and Texas, with Crawford a more well spoken Southern gentleman than Gibson. Meanwhile, Wayans’ comedy talents are instead used most when dealing with his wife (Keesha Sharp) and family, rather than with Crawford.
All the same, despite death wishes, a dead pregnant wife in the first five minutes and the copious number of car chases and shootouts, Lethal Weapon the TV series is a decidedly lighter affair than it probably should be and is nowhere near as compelling as it should be, either. Crawford, who is still undoubtedly the show’s biggest asset and does fine at both the dark and the light, doesn’t have the same manic energy that Gibson had once he had a target in his sights. The script is all over the place, despite the fine template, and its reinventions of old scenes are virtually nonsense.
And despite McG’s presence behind the camera, the action is mostly badly choreographed, underwhelming and empty, other than a couple of fight scenes. Indeed, among all the other damage he undergoes in the episode, one of the lead characters is shot twice and the only trace of injury at the end is his arm in a sling. This is action because it can look cool, rather than because it has any real meaning.
Crawford is good enough and the character still Riggs enough that I’ll tune in for episode two, at least, in the hope the show pulls itself together in later episodes. But this feels like an adaptation that either only loosely understands its original material or doesn’t feel it can fully exploit it in a primetime show. Whichever it is, it also can’t create something of its own that’s as good or even half as engaging.