Updated: Mar 30
A family man who’s, “Getting too old for this shit,” and a suicidal, ex-special forces operative, attempt to solve the mysterious death of a banker's daughter in Richard Donner’s infamous buddy cop action flick, Lethal Weapon. The film has all the makings of your typical action movie - drugs, shootouts, catch phrases, martial arts, explosions - all wrapped up neatly with a Christmas bow. But why the holiday setting? This isn’t some arbitrary Hollywood move of “Hey, the movie comes out during the holiday season so let’s throw some Santa’s in there." The choice appears to be deliberate; Lethal Weapon was released March 6th, 1987, months after the holiday season. The film constantly reminds you that it’s Christmas: from playing Jingle Bells over the opening title screen, to its ending on Christmas day. It’s a theme that’s so strangely at odds with the actual plot of the movie that you wonder why it’s even there at all. If you take out the holiday decorations, the occasional Santas and the Jingle Bells, the plot of Lethal Weapon remains the same: two cops trying to solve a suicide case who stumble onto something greater. So again: why is the film trying to tell us it’s Christmastime?
The film is set in Los Angeles, which I’d imagine to be a strange place during the holiday season. L.A.’s hot climate and lack of snow seems (at least to myself, a New Yorker) strange. Even visually, to see folks wearing shorts and t-shirts amongst holiday décor is an odd juxtaposition. Christmas in L.A. is a battle of tropes; this perhaps speaks to the duality between buddy-cop power-couple, Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson). Murtaugh is a family man, a cop who plays by the rules, but more importantly he’s happy. He’s the “Christmas." Riggs on the other hand is suicidal; he’s a loose-cannon narcotics officer with a history of being trigger-happy. He has no fear; after his wife’s death, he has nothing left to lose. He’s the “Los Angeles." This mismatching of characters creates a sort of yin and yang between the two. The film on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily find the same harmony as a Christmas-wrapped action movie.
As much as the film is trying to tell us it’s Christmastime, its other major element is suicide. The film's inciting incident is the suicide of banker, Michael Hunsaker’s (Tom Atkins) troubled daughter-turned-prostitute, Amanda Hunsaker (Jackie Swanson). This death sets the plot into motion. We are also constantly reminded that Riggs himself is suicidal. In a scene (that’s far too good to actually be in this ridiculous movie) Riggs puts a gun in his mouth and cries as he contemplates suicide. Later in the film we have back-to-back suicide attempts. Riggs and Murtaugh respond to a "jumper" and Riggs saves the man’s life by making them both jump off of the building into a safety net. The next scene features Riggs confessing to Murtaugh his own suicidal thoughts, almost pulling the trigger on himself in front of a painted storefront window saying, “Everything must go.” When Riggs confronts the jumper on the roof, he tries to calm him down by saying, “A lot of people have problems, especially during this silly season.” This line may reveal why suicide is so prevalent in the film. A common myth about the holiday season (that a few searches on google can disprove) is that suicide rates skyrocket during this time of year. Perhaps Lethal Weapon is trying to show us the ugly side of the holiday season. In a time sugar-coated with happiness, there are people among us who are depressed, there are people who are experiencing great loss, there’s no stopping the cold reality of everyday life.
As most action movies tend to do, the last two-thirds of Lethal Weapon is an orgy of violence abandoning a lot of its holiday motifs - excluding the death of Michael Hunsaker: he gets shot in the back and the bullet exits through a half-gallon of eggnog he’s holding (it’s literally the best thing I’ve ever seen). The film ends on a happy note. Riggs is invited over to the Murtaugh household for Christmas dinner and gives his partner a gift: the hollow point bullet he was saving for his suicide, claiming he doesn’t need it anymore. So why is this movie set during Christmastime? It’s cheesy, but I think it’s what saves Riggs’ life. The gift of friendship between these two cops saves Riggs. The holiday spirit is somewhere deeply hidden in Lethal Weapon, you just have to take out a few drug lords to find it.
Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter @RoBaeBae