INTRO: After the success of Lethal Weapon 3, it was a given there would be a fourth film in the franchise. But the next sequel proved to be surprisingly difficult to get into production. Until Warner Bros. realized they were heading into 1998 without a surefire summer hit on their hands. They gave LETHAL WEAPON 4 the greenlight and the movie was thrown together in a mad scramble. Twenty-five years later, it’s time to look back at the results of that rush job in this episode of REVISITED.
SET-UP: With a global box office haul of three hundred and twenty million dollars, Lethal Weapon 3 wasn’t just the biggest hit of the franchise. The 1992 release was considered to be the most profitable film in Warner Bros. history. So studio executives and producer Joel Silver immediately started looking forward to Lethal Weapon 4. Less than a year after Part 3 reached theatres, Silver attempted to buy an original action spec script called Simon Says. Which he intended to have rewritten into the fourth Lethal Weapon movie. But Simon Says ended up at 20th Century Fox instead – and two years later, it reached theatres under the title Die Hard With A Vengeance. Silver didn’t let that deter him from his sequel ambitions. By the summer of 1993, Silver and Warner Bros. were plotting to make two Lethal Weapon sequels back-to-back. Jonathan Lemkin, who had done uncredited rewrites on Demolition Man, was hired to write the script for Part 4. He came up with the idea of our heroes, LAPD Sergeants Riggs and Murtaugh, going up against a criminal organization that has been smuggling Chinese immigrants into the U.S. Silver liked the set-up, but didn’t feel the script was good enough. So he turned to Lethal Weapon veteran Jeffrey Boam.
Boam had been with the franchise since the start. He did uncredited rewrites on the first movie. Earned credit for rewriting the script for the second movie. And was given three separate writing credits on the third movie. He didn’t have a positive experience doing constant revisions on Lethal Weapon 3, but decided to give the series one more chance. He took the job of writing Part 4, and tossed out Lemkin’s story in favor of coming up with his own. Boam’s idea was to pit Riggs and Murtaugh against a Neo-Nazi group that’s carrying out terrorist attacks in Los Angeles. A concept that hit too close to home when a domestic terrorist attack was carried out in Oklahoma City in April of 1995.
Never mind making back-to-back sequels. Figuring out Lethal Weapon 4 was proving difficult enough on its own. And one of the franchise’s stars didn’t care if it would ever make it through development hell. Interviewed on the set of Maverick, the comedy Western he made with Lethal Weapon series director Richard Donner, Mel Gibson indicated he was bored of playing Riggs. He said, “My answer to more Lethal Weapon‘s? Nah. … I’m not interested now.” He suggested that any scripts developed should be sent over to Bruce Willis to become more Die Hard sequels. The chance of Gibson doing another Lethal Weapon dropped even lower when he was looking to raise the budget for his directorial effort Braveheart. Warner Bros. offered to put sixty million dollars into Braveheart if he would officially sign on for Lethal Weapon 4. Gibson was insulted, feeling that Braveheart was a project worth investing in without side deals. A couple years later, the studio managed to get back on his good side. Gibson was contracted to make a movie for Paramount, and he wanted it to be the Point Blank remake Payback. Warner Bros. owned the rights to Point Blank, but they let the movie happen at Paramount. And handled the international distribution.
The studio’s reconciliation with Gibson came at the right time. 1997 wasn’t a good year for them, with the underwhelming Batman & Robin and the failure of The Postman. They were hoping to have a Tim Burton Superman movie and a version of I Am Legend starring Arnold Schwarzenegger for the summer of ‘98. But it was becoming clear those projects wouldn’t be ready. In fact, the Burton Superman movie never happened at all. I Am Legend didn’t reach theatres until 2007, with Will Smith in the lead. So their summer ‘98 line-up was looking weak. The best they had to offer was a couple thrillers, the animated film Quest For Camelot, and a big screen update of the ‘60s TV show The Avengers. They needed something that would be a guaranteed hit. And, to save money and time, it needed to be a movie that wouldn’t require extensive CGI. It needed to be Lethal Weapon 4.
They decided to move forward with the story Lemkin came up with. The smuggling of Chinese immigrants. Channing Gibson, a longtime TV writer who is not related to Mel, was hired to write a fresh draft. And in hopes of making things move faster, the writing duo of Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who would go on to create the shows Smallville and Wednesday, were hired to write their own draft. It was around October of ‘97 when the scripts were turned in, and Gibson’s draft got the more positive reaction. So while Lemkin, Gough, and Millar would all receive story credit on the film, it was Gibson who was kept on the project. He would continue working on the script throughout filming.
Richard Donner was always on board to direct, and wasn’t concerned about making the film in a hurry. He was used to reworking the scripts for his movies during production. He was quoted as saying, “I’m confident I will have a finished script by the end of principal photography. Besides, our actors are very good at improvising.” But first they had to make sure all the actors would be coming back for the sequel. And so much money went toward paying the cast, many industry professionals questioned if it would be possible for the film to make a profit. Rumors at the time indicated that nearly fifty million dollars of the budget went to the cast. And that the studio also gave up around forty percent of the gross to the cast in back-end deals. Gibson was said to receive twenty million dollars, plus seventeen percent of the gross. Returning as Murtaugh, Danny Glover received gross points for the first time in the franchise. Rene Russo was brought back as Riggs’ love interest Lorna Cole – who would be pregnant with their child in this film. Darlene Love, Traci Wolfe, Damon Hines, and Ebonie Smith return as Murtaugh’s wife and kids. Steve Kahan would be back as police Captain Murphy. Mary Ellen Trainor as police psychologist Stephanie Woods. There was trouble getting Joe Pesci to sign on to play Riggs and Murtaugh’s pal Leo Getz. Leo wasn’t included in the initial drafts of the script. But he got added in when Pesci agreed to take one million dollars a week for three weeks of work. Eddy Ko and Steven Lam were cast as Hong and Ping, standouts among the Chinese immigrant family Murtaugh befriends. And shelters in his house when he hears they’ll be deported.
Warner Bros. wanted to add a new detective into mix, someone who might appeal to the younger audience. So Chris Rock was hired and given a two million dollar payday, and the writer had to figure out how to work him into the script. At first, Rock’s character Lee Butters was supposed to be a gay man. The idea was that it would be funny if Murtaugh becomes convinced that Butters has a crush on him. Murtaugh suspecting Butters is gay and attracted to him is still in the film. But it was decided that Butters should be straight and secretly married to Murtaugh’s pregnant daughter Rianne. A fact that was kept from Murtaugh because he didn’t want his daughters to date cops.
Kim Chan was cast as criminal kingpin Uncle Benny. Who is part of a scheme to smuggle Chinese immigrants into the U.S., and then sell them into slavery. But Uncle Benny isn’t the main villain. He’s also working with members of the Chinese triad crime syndicate, represented by a man named Wah Sing Ku. Who is having counterfeit money made to pay off a General to release a group of former big-time triads called the Four Fathers from prison. Wah Sing Ku is a man of few words. He gets his point across by taking people down with his martial arts skills. And really pisses Murtaugh off when he murders Hong. The first choice for the role of Wah Sing Ku was Jackie Chan. The martial arts action star who recently had breakthrough success in the U.S. But Chan didn’t want to play a bad guy, so he turned down the offer. Jet Li was then given the chance to have his own breakthrough success in the U.S. Li was a big star in China and known for playing heroes. But he did a great job playing a villain here.
An unsung hero in this film is Calvin Jung as Detective Ng*. He and he his partner, played by Tony Keyes, are so underappreciated that the partner doesn’t even get a name. And yet they are the ones who actually figure out what’s going on with Uncle Benny and Wah Sing Ku. Riggs and Murtaugh would be lost if it weren’t for Ng and his partner, who even get to participate in the climactic shootout.
Lethal Weapon 4 started filming in January of 1998, just seven months before its July 10th release date. Channing Gibson continued trying to put the script together the entire time the movie was filming. Actors were handed new scenes every day. Characters were changed in the midst of production. There would be times where Gibson would be writing scenes in longhand on set while the cast and crew waited to see what they were about to shoot. And he wasn’t the only person working on the script. At one point there were five writers working on the film simultaneously. Including Jeffrey Boam, who thought the whole Chinese triad story was weak and not worthy of being in a Lethal Weapon movie. Other writers were Michael Curtis and Greg Malins, who were writers and executive producers on the TV show Friends. And Fred Dekker, who wrote The Monster Squad and The Predator with original Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black.
REVIEW: The finished film does have that “too many cooks in the kitchen” feeling. You can tell they were rushing through production without a clear picture in mind of the movie they were making. Lethal Weapon 4 has rightfully earned the reputation of being the worst entry in the franchise. It’s a bit sloppy. There are story elements that go nowhere. Like Riggs and Murtaugh being promoted to Captains because the police department can’t get insurance with them on the streets. These Captains proceed to cause just as much destruction as they ever did as Sergeants. But the department gets insurance and they’re Sergeants again at the end of the film. It’s pointless, and yet it’s in the movie. Although there are some humorous moments with Uncle Benny and intense moments with Wah Sing Ku, the villain plot isn’t interesting or engaging. There are too many side plots for us to really care what’s going on with the bad guys. We’re busy watching Riggs face fatherhood and worry that he’s getting too old for this. Plus the story of Rianne’s pregnancy and secret marriage to Butters. Murtaugh thinking Butters has a crush on him. Internal Affairs suspecting Murtaugh is crooked just because he has money. Most of which comes from his wife’s secret career of writing romance novels. Leo becoming a private investigator… and delivering a heartfelt monologue about his childhood pet. A frog named Froggy. The folks at the Razzies slapped Pesci with a Worst Actor nomination because of that monologue.
The darkness the first two movies had is almost completely gone. This sequel is primarily a comedy, with story elements that feel like they were lifted right out of a sitcom. Chris Rock also takes multiple opportunities to act like he’s performing a stand-up routine. It’s far from the level the franchise started on. But it’s still an enjoyable movie. Riggs has cut his iconic hair, but hasn’t lost any of that magical chemistry he has with Murtaugh. It’s always fun to watch these guys interact with each other and the people around them. Even if those interactions lean into absurdity. Donner was always most interested in the personal lives of Riggs and Murtaugh, and that is still clear in this film. It provides some laughs and some decent action.
One standout action sequence is a unique car chase that includes a fight in a home that’s being hauled down the freeway. And a moment, added by Fred Dekker, where Riggs and Murtaugh are launched into a building and have to drive through an office to get back onto the road. Where the chase continues. Other standouts include any action scene involving Jet Li. Whose martial arts moves were so quick, Donner had to ask him to slow down. He was moving faster than the camera shutter speed, his punches weren’t being caught on film. The final fight in the movie was supposed to be a one-on-one brawl between Riggs and Wah Sing Ku. But after seeing what Jet Li could do, Donner realized the audience wouldn’t believe that Mel Gibson could beat him on his own. So the final fight became a two-on-one scuffle with Riggs and Murtaugh taking on Wah Sing Ku together. And this scene, set under a pier on a dark and stormy night, is the closest the movie ever gets to being as hard-edged and thrilling as the first two Lethal Weapon‘s. The fight is awesome and brutal. And features a glorious moment where Riggs spins and lifts Wah Sing Ku with the piece of rebar Murtaugh has run through him.
Apparently Mel Gibson had requested that Riggs be killed off in this movie. There are a couple moments in the final confrontation with Wah Sing Ku that could have been the end of Riggs. But of course they didn’t really knock him off. His death wouldn’t have fit in with the overall tone of the movie anyway.
LEGACY/NOW: It has never been clear exactly how much Lethal Weapon 4 cost to make. Warner Bros. has said that it had a budget of ninety million dollars. That’s enough to make it the most expensive in the franchise by far. The previous movie had a budget of thirty-five million. But others have speculated that the cost of Lethal Weapon 4 was more like one hundred and twenty million, or higher. Add fifty million for marketing and the rumors of the stars having a big percentage of profit participation. You can see why there were questions of whether or not this movie could make any money for Warner Bros. But that was for the studio to worry about. What we do know is that the movie managed to draw in a sizable audience. Although there was some filming going on as late as mid-May, Donner had it ready for its July 10th release date. And it was the number one movie of its opening weekend.
The most expensive Lethal Weapon movie was not the most successful one. The second and third films did better than Part 4 domestically. Where it earned just over one hundred and thirty million at the box office. Add in one hundred and fifty-five million more from the international release, and that boosts Part 4’s take over two hundred and eighty-five million. It fell short of Part 3’s three hundred and twenty million haul. But despite receiving middle-of-the-road reviews from both critics and fans, it is the second most successful film in the franchise.
And while talk of another sequel has frequently come up over the years, Lethal Weapon 4 remains the last film in the franchise. Riggs and Murtaugh did return on the small screen, played by different actors in a TV series that lasted for a few seasons. But Mel Gibson and Danny Glover haven’t played them in a long time. Richard Donner and Channing Gibson had an idea for another sequel, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere. Absent from the series since Part 2, Shane Black returned to write a lengthy treatment for a fifth film. Black’s idea was to take Riggs and Murtaugh to New York City just in time for the worst blizzard in east coast history. They’d have to make their way through the snow to fight a private military team that has been smuggling antiquities. Not even a Shane Black treatment could get Lethal Weapon 5 into production. Donner went on to develop another script with Richard Wenk. A writer who has contributed to action franchises like The Expendables, The Equalizer, and Jack Reacher. But the project didn’t come together soon enough for Donner to be able to direct it. He passed away in 2021 at the age of 91. Mel Gibson has said he will take the helm and get the movie made as a tribute to Donner. Now we’re waiting to see if it’s ever going to happen.
In the meantime, we have four entertaining movies to revisit. A couple of them are great. A couple of them are comparatively underwhelming. But they’re all a good time, and that’s courtesy of Richard Donner. He captured magic on film when he cast Gibson and Glover in Lethal Weapon – and then he gave us three more servings of that magic. Donner isn’t with us anymore, but his four Lethal Weapon movies, and the other movies on his filmography, will continue being watched and enjoyed for a long time to come. We thank him for the entertainment he provided.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/lethal-weapon-4/