I’m getting too old for this shit, 3.5 readers.
I’ve been kicking it 80s style during this quarantine, and over Easter weekend, I celebrated the resurrection of our Lord and Savior by watching Riggs and Murtaugh deep six a lot of bad guys who are never coming back.
On the surface, they may seem silly, but these movies really do have it all (well, the first two are near perfect whereas the last 2 are a bit flawed but I’ll get to that).
They’re funny. They’re serious. The stakes are high but the laughs are still present. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll get to know the cops, their families, friends, hopes, dreams, etc. They aren’t just cookie cut outs. They’re fully developed characters, which is rare for an action movie.
Danny Glover plays Roger Murtaugh, an LAPD Homicide detective who, in the first movie, turns 50. As is his catch phrase, he is “getting too old for this shit.” In a scene where his wife and kids bring a flaming birthday cake into the bathroom, catching him by surprise while he’s in the tub, we see his elation, that the family he has built nourishes his soul. When they leave alone, he looks in the mirror and the look speaks a thousand words silently. He is depressed that he is getting old. His best years are behind him. He is mortal and the fear that one day, he might die and lose the family and home he has built weighs heavily on him.
Across town, we meet Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson). He’s younger than Riggs. I’m not sure what age he’s playing but if I had to guess, in the early 30s range. He lives alone in a trailer by the beach, no one but his dog to keep him company. His wife has died in a car accident. It’s Christmas. We see the look of epic sadness on his face. He sticks a gun in his mouth and as his finger touches the trigger, we see a pained look on his face, like he might actually do it, that at any rate, he is capable of doing it. Obviously, he doesn’t do it but if you were seeing this movie in the 1980s for the first time, you definitely might have been lead to believe that he was about to do it.
Riggs and Murtaugh join forces and become the ultimate odd couple. Murtaugh wants to play it safe because he has too much to lose. Meanwhile, Riggs has no problem being reckless. Car chases, shootouts and fist fights are his forte. Murtaugh nags Riggs, urging him to slow down at every turn, like an old woman. Riggs is like the young son who pushes his old man into living dangerously.
Ironically, they compliment each other. As the movies wear on, Murtaugh realizes that in addition to being a dad, he is also a cop. While there’s a part of him that yearns to leave the force behind and live a safe life, surrounded by family while he goes fishing and collects a pension, there’s another part of him that knows he’ll only feel useful when he’s fighting crime, and Riggs brings this side out of him.
Conversely, as we get to know Riggs, we learn he isn’t as crazy as he seems. Rather, he was a special forces soldier during Vietnam and followed that up by becoming an LAPD cop. These are dangerous jobs and one does not get results in either profession by not acting a little bit crazy. It’s not that Riggs wants to die, it’s just that he learns to suppress the fear and tackle it with humor and bad jokes so as to keep from going completely insane. The Murtaughs become the family he never had. Roger like his grumpy uncle, Trish like his Mom doing his laundry and cooking for him. The kids become like his nieces and nephews. Along the way, he seeks out the family life that he’s missing and builds a life like Roger’s, one that he’s afraid to lose.
The first two are quite solid. The third and fourth? I don’t know. The third takes place in the early 1990s and doesn’t quite have the cache of 1990s action flicks, which were all more or less about ex Vietnam vets becoming cops and crooks and squaring off against each other, using their ‘Nam skills to kick ass and settling old scores. Mix in the coke dealers and the fast and loose lifestyle and I don’t know, all that kind of became blase in the 1990s.
Riggs falls for lady cop Rene Russo in the third film and starts a family with her in the fourth. By 1998, Danny and Mel seemed way too old to be running around getting into fights and car chases, though they address that by embracing the getting too old for this shit line.
Don’t get me wrong. Three and Four are worth watching, but the real magic rests in 1 and 2.
Not everything holds up. There are some things that don’t fly today. Riggs and Murtaugh make fun of Trish’s cooking throughout the series, whereas today the idea of poking fun at a woman’s culinary skills as though this somehow makes her less worthy isn’t kosher. I mean, hell, good luck even getting a woman to make you dinner. If you are lucky enough to have one who will, don’t make fun of her cooking skills.
Riggs and Murtaugh also regularly crack jokes about each other being gay and/or unmanly. After a bomb blast in the first film, Murtaugh grabs Riggs only for Riggs to push Murtaugh away and call him a “fag.”
So yeah, there are some things that will make the modern viewer cringe but if you can write it off as all being a product of the time, you might be able to still enjoy it. Maybe not. I don’t know.
Meanwhile, the series does rest on a number of running gags. Running jokes include Roger borrowing his wife’s car only to completely fuck it up while chasing bad guys, cursing Riggs the entire time, demanding that he go easy on his wife’s car. The Murtaugh family home takes a beating throughout the series, from drug dealers driving through it with their cars to a toilet explosion in the second film ( a highlight of the series to be sure.)
Joe Pesci is added to the series in 2 as Leo Getz, a slimy accountant turned witness who whines incessantly, yet often comes up with sleazy ideas that help Riggs and Murtaugh catch the crooks.
Overall, it’s a great series that really captures two ways of looking at life. You can be a Murtaugh and live in fear of losing it all, or be a Riggs and laugh in the face of danger lest you dwell on it and let the fear eat you up inside.
SIDENOTE: It always saddened me when Mel went on his racial tirades. I didn’t want to believe it at first but the way the racial words roll off his tongue in various recordings, adding in the fact that he was given so many chances to redeem himself yet kept saying such things makes it clear that unfortunately, a lot of this crap was in his heart all along, which it makes it odd when you watch Riggs because that character is so far from being a racist. Part of me wants to chalk up Mel’s tirades to him becoming an angry old man but I don’t know, there are ways to be an angry old man without invoking all kinds of racial epithets, thus making it hard to believe these bad thoughts weren’t with him all along.