There’s a line in FOX’s new series adaptation of Lethal Weapon, the quintessential buddy-cop movie that turned Mel Gibson from a cult action hero to a global superstar, spoken – spoken twice, in fact – by the actor taking on Gibson’s iconic role of cop-on-the-edge Martin Riggs, that could serve as the show’s creative manifesto:
In context, the line is Riggs’ reverse-psychology exhortation to the bank robber pointing a rifle at his head, and later to his partner Roger Murtaugh, who is about to shoot a bad guy. But on a metatextual level, it speaks to the challenge of taking on such a well-known and beloved piece of material, where one false note is likely to capsize the whole thing.
To fans of a certain age (like the one typing this right now), a rebooted Lethal Weapon sounds like a terrible idea, one that’s almost all downside. How could a TV series – a network TV series, no less – hope to replicate Gibson’s by-turns harrowing and hilarious performance, or his chemistry with costar Danny Glover, or achieve the impossibly perfect tonal balance between thrilling action, precise comedy, and heartbreaking character beats?
On the strength of the first episode, premiering Wednesday September 21 and available on-demand the day after, the news is mostly good. Series creator, executive producer and writer Matthew Miller revealed at last week’s PaleyFest panel and press screening for the series that his first call after his pitch was greenlighted was to Richard Donner, director of all four of the movies. Donner’s advice was simple: “If you don’t have the two guys, you’re screwed.”
Fortunately, it appears that they have the two guys. Damon Wayans takes on the role of Murtaugh, infusing it with a slightly goofy humor where Glover tended to play things straight, and Clayne Crawford, best known from his work on the pitch-dark Sundance drama Rectify, steps into Riggs’ cowboy boots. Crawford’s Southern drawl and easy body language makes him a little looser in the role than Gibson, and he trades Gibson’s mullet for a crown of wild curls, but he nails the tricky duality of Riggs’ easy confidence with his skillset as a cop, the lingering, crushed despair of having recently lost his wife in a car accident just before she was to deliver their first child, and the way the two intersect to make him dangerous – to the bad guys, to himself, and to his partner.
As good as Crawford is in the crucial role of Riggs, Wayans is the glue that holds this Lethal Weapon together, showing easy chemistry not just with Crawford but with Keesha Sharp as Murtaugh’s wife, Trish; with Kevin Rahm (Mad Men) as Murtaugh’s partner-turned-boss, Capt. Avery; even with the Murtaughs’ new baby, whose birth prompted the heart attack and triple bypass that Murtaugh has just recovered from in the pilot. Wayans’ recent personal history greatly informed his approach to that part of the backstory:
“I actually had brain surgery in December,“ Wayans told the audience at PaleyFest. "I had a tumor on my pituitary and they had to go in through my nose, drill past my skull, and remove it. It was the scariest moment of my life; it was benign, but you have to say goodbye to all those you love, so all my family’s there, my children, my grandchildren, and we cried together because I didn’t even know if it was cancer or not. So you go in, you get it done, and you’re like whew! And then I’m scared to do anything. So I really connected with the Murtaugh character because he had that triple bypass, and it’s like ‘I just want to make it through the day.’ But that’s not living.”
The series surrounds the guys with a great ensemble: Sharp is terrific as Trish, and this version smartly adjusts the character to being a defense attorney who earns more than her husband; Jordana Brewster plays the police psychologist assigned to keep Riggs on the rails; and Johnathan Fernandez is amusing as Scorsese, the bone-dry film school-dropout criminologist.
Visually, the show is a knockout, with inventively filmed action sequences – including a budget-busting car chase that ends up on the track at the Long Beach Grand Prix – and a relentlessly moving camera that keeps things engaging, courtesy of established feature director McG.
So with all these great elements in place, what could go wrong? The pilot does fall into the too-familiar rhythms of a case-of-the-week show at times, which could be a problem if the writers aren’t careful. And though it does a great job of balancing the tones of Riggs’ despair and the comedy of his personality conflict with Murtaugh, that conflict seems to evaporate by the end of the episode, suggesting that the show might fall too quickly into the pitfall that made the movie sequels’ successive quality decline so precipitously: downplaying Riggs’ inner turmoil, introducing silly characters like Joe Pesci’s, and turning the series into a straight-up action comedy, with most of the emphasis on the comedy.
Miller addressed that concern without even being asked: “I was very, very familiar with the first movie and the second, and obviously I know the other two, but I knew that I wanted to focus on the first one, where it was a little bit more of a drama and a little bit more of a character piece, where Riggs is suicidal, and Murtaugh’s turning 50 and all of that. We wanted to kind of reboot that a little bit, because we wanted to kind of live in that space longer. So that was the first thing I thought about: Who are they, and how are they damaged? So with Riggs we went down at the beginning and we saw him in Texas, and you see a moment of Riggs before he was totally broken, where he screams “Yahoo!” about his wife going to the hospital, and then you experience all of that loss, and it’s something we can play over and over again. And then with Murtaugh, the idea was to take a character who had two grown children, and then he and his wife had this surprise third child, and he had a heart attack in the delivery room. And [his wife] does very well financially and is super successful and is sort of the breadwinner in the family, so he has the fear of having experienced a little death, and he doesn’t have to be there for financial reasons, so what drives him? Obviously we’re gonna be solving cases and chasing bad guys and having car chases and all of that business, but the soul of it is watching these two guys evolve through the course of the season and deal with these issues.”
Crawford concurs: “I think the dynamic of the show is you have two individuals who are tethered together but they’re going in different directions. That’s where the fun comes in. So I think if Riggs is healthy, and he has something to live for, we kinda lose the dynamic of the show, don’t we? So I told Miller, if you wanna bring in somebody who’s a love interest, you gotta kill ‘em.”
If these remarks, the strength of the pilot, and the cast’s obvious enthusiasm for the project are to be believed, then they might just have a not-miss on their hands.