The Evolution of Blockbusters Through the Lens of the “Lethal Weapon” Franchise

Imagine sitting down in the theater and strapping in for the latest summer blockbuster. Let’s call this one Terminal Inferno. Or Sudden Overkill. Or something about a gun.

Fade in: Exterior shot of a police station.

Cut to: Captain’s office. A bigger man, hair gray and balding faster than he can keep up with, sits behind his desk. He toys with his wedding ring as he prepares to deliver the news.

Captain: HAYES!  JEFFRIES! Get in here!

Two cops enter: one is young, handsome, and rugged. This is Jeffries. The other is older, a slight but noticeable beer belly hanging over his belt and pressing against his holster. This is Hayes. They take a seat.

Captain: Do you have any idea why I’ve called you two in here today?

Jeffries: You missed us?

Captain: (sighing) No. You two are being paired up. The Calaveras case is too big for just one detective.

Hayes: All due respect, captain, you can’t be serious? I’m a month away from retirement!

Captain: Well, let’s hope you two can get it all straightened out before then. Go on, get out of my sight.

Hayes: Captain, this is bulls- (he catches himself) this isn’t fair. I’ve worked too damn hard to be paired up with a rookie with a death wish.

Jeffries: (sarcastically) Yeah, and I haven’t worked nearly hard enough to be sent out in the field.

Captain: Both of you, out, before I put both of you on traffic duty.

The two cops stand and head for the door, scuffling over who gets to leave first.

What now seems trite was once massively successful: two cops who couldn’t be more different must team up against their will to solve a case. In 1987, Lethal Weapon took this tired concept and ran with it, spawning three sequels and a television series based on the franchise. Adding up the box office totals of all four movies comes just shy of a billion dollars—$955,237,243, to get technical.

Look on the contrary: nearly 30 years later, 2016 saw the release of The Nice Guys. Two private eyes—one sleazy and casual, the other forceful and determined—decide to team up to help find a missing girl. Despite critical acclaim, the movie made $57 million on a budget of only $7 million less than that. What has changed? Both Lethal Weapon and The Nice Guys feature similar pacing, similar humor, similar action, and similar themes. Why was one a massive hit and the other a box office failure? The answer lies within the Lethal Weapon franchise itself.

One franchise, four movies, and a shift in focus

The year is 1987. Audiences are familiar with films like Beverly Hills Cop and television shows like Starsky & Hutch. They’re aware that the concept of being a police officer has the potential to be funny. They’re also familiar with the concept of a buddy comedy—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had been out for nearly 20 years at that point, while Abbott and Costello had been around for nearly 50. All audiences needed was someone to take these concepts and reinvigorate them.

That’s where Lethal Weapon comes into play. Frequently humorous and often exciting, the film was a massive success—rightfully so, considering the amount of precision it took to perfectly blend drama, action, and comedy. Writer Shane Black and director Richard Donner had managed to reinvent the genre, while Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh (played by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, respectively) instantly became pop culture icons.

Two years later: 1989. Lethal Weapon 2 hits theaters. Writer Shane Black is gone, and his dramatic, action-packed script has been doctored into something that leans far more heavily on comedy—the introduction of Joe Pesci’s obnoxious character Leo Getz is further proof of this. The mix is good, but not as good as it was in the first movie. Gibson and Glover’s chemistry is undeniable, but many scenes feel stale and gags occasionally fall flat. Clearly that wasn’t a problem for audiences, though, because the movie went on to make almost twice as much as its predecessor: about 230 million dollars.

…And they just kept coming. 1992 saw the release of Lethal Weapon 3, a sloppy comedy delivering more of the same with barely any drama and some unbelievably generic action. At this point, no one believes Murtaugh when he says he’s “too old for this s—.” It’s obviously working out very well for him—the movie made almost as much as the first two combined.

Even though it was a hit with audiences, Lethal Weapon 3 did not do very well with the critics. Maybe that’s why it took 6 years for Lethal Weapon 4 to see the light of day. Unfortunately, the gap didn’t help much. Riggs and Murtaugh have become one-dimensional shells of their former selves, almost resembling cartoon characters as they repeatedly live through the most ridiculous and death-defying action sequences.

As the franchise went on, the focus shifted from realistic drama, believable action, and dark humor to big laughs, big explosions, and big stunts, no matter how unrealistic. It doesn’t matter, though, because the series came so close to a billion dollars—even though somewhere between 50-75% of the series is pure mediocrity. It made a lot of money, and that made an impression on studios. The formula was borrowed, copied, and spread around for the next 18 years.

The formula in action

With exceptions like the Mission: Impossible franchise aside, modern action movies look something like this: BIG opening sequence, some expository dialogue to set up all three acts, some smaller action, some laughs, some bigger action, some laughs, and then a BIG finale. Our main character walks away with some cuts and bruises. He says his catchphrase. We’ll see him again next summer. The critics pan them, just like they did with the last two Lethal Weapon movies, but audiences show up anyway. It’s the Lethal Weapon Guide to Making a Billion Dollars, and it’s not going away any time soon.

It seems Shane Black—the same Shane Black responsible for the first (and best) Lethal Weapon movie—realized this a long time ago, and that’s why he got out of the franchise as soon as he could. He’s been trying to break the mold for years, but it hasn’t worked out well for him. His most recent and aforementioned film, The Nice Guys, was considered by critics to be a refreshing and essential reinvention of what action movies refuse to be—a perfect blend of dark comedy, gripping drama, and believable action. Too bad it bombed at the box office, which means no one at an executive level will give it a second glance and modern blockbusters will continue to be painfully generic.

Recently, Fox decided its 2016 fall lineup was the perfect place for Lethal Weapon, this time in the form of a television show with newer, younger leads. The show premieres on September 21, and while it’s unfair to judge something based solely on its trailer, it looks like audiences are in for more of the same.

Meanwhile, filmmakers like Shane Black and moviegoers desperate for change will wait patiently for the movie that finally reinvents the genre once more.



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