The film was released on March 6, 1987. Upon its release, Lethal Weapon grossed over $120 million against a production budget of $15 million, and it was nominated for Academy Award in the category of Best Sound. It spawned a franchise that includes three sequels and a television series.
LAPD Homicide Sergeant Roger Murtaugh, shortly after his 50th birthday, is partnered with Sergeant Martin Riggs, a transfer from narcotics. Riggs is a former Special Forces soldier who lost his wife in a car accident two years prior, has turned suicidal, and has been taking his aggression out on suspects, leading to his superiors requesting his transfer. Murtaugh and Riggs quickly find themselves feuding with each other.
Murtaugh is contacted by Michael Hunsaker, a Vietnam War buddy and banker, but before they can meet, Murtaugh learns that Hunsaker's daughter, Amanda, apparently committed suicide by jumping from her apartment balcony. Autopsy reports show Amanda to have been poisoned with drain cleaner, making the case a possible homicide. Hunsaker tells Murtaugh that he was concerned about his daughter's involvement in drugs, prostitution, and pornography, and was trying to get Murtaugh to help her escape that life.
Murtaugh and Riggs attempt to question Amanda's pimp, but find a drug lab on the premises, leading to a shootout. Riggs kills the pimp and saves the life of Murtaugh, who starts to tolerate his new partner. Though the case seems closed, Riggs is aware that the only witness to Amanda's apparent suicide was Dixie, another prostitute who was working away from her normal streets. They attempt to question Dixie at her home, but it explodes as they approach it. Riggs finds parts of a mercury switch from bomb debris, indicating a professional had set the bomb; children who had been nearby witnessed a man approach the house with a tattoo similar to Riggs', and Murtaugh suspects Hunsaker knows more than he has told him.
The two approach Hunsaker before Amanda's funeral, where he reveals that he had previously been part of "Shadow Company," a heroin-smuggling operation run by former special forces operators from the Vietnam War, masterminded by retired General Peter McAllister and his right-hand man, Mr. Joshua. Hunsaker had been laundering the money, but wanted to get out, and when McAllister found out he'd contacted Murtaugh, the general had Amanda killed. As they talk, Joshua arrives in a helicopter and kills Hunsaker. Shadow Company attempts to kill Riggs in a drive-by shooting, but he is saved by a bullet-proof vest. Murtaugh and Riggs fake his death to gain the upper hand.
Shadow Company later kidnaps Murtaugh's daughter Rianne and demand Murtaugh turn himself over to them for her return. Murtaugh and Riggs plan an ambush at the exchange at El Mirage Lake with Riggs providing sniper support, but Riggs is caught by McAllister and all three are taken to an unknown location. Murtaugh and Riggs are tortured for information, but Riggs manages to overpower his captors, frees Murtaugh and Rianne, and they escape to find themselves at a busy nightclub used as a front for Shadow Company. Their cover blown, McAllister and Joshua attempt to escape separately. Joshua manages to get away, but McAllister ends up crashing his car on Hollywood Boulevard and is killed when hand grenades in the car detonate. Murtaugh and Riggs race to Murtaugh's home, knowing Joshua will be after his family. They arrive in time to stop him, and Riggs beats him in a violent fist fight on the front lawn. As officers arrive to take Joshua away, he breaks free and grabs a gun, but both Murtaugh and Riggs pull their guns and shoot him dead.
After visiting his wife's grave, Riggs spends Christmas with the Murtaughs, having become best friends with Murtaugh and bonding with the rest of the family. Riggs also gives Murtaugh a symbolic gift: an unfired hollow-point bullet which he had been saving to commit suicide, as he does not need it anymore.Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs
Danny Glover as Roger Murtaugh
Gary Busey as Jack Joshua
Mitchell Ryan as Peter McAllister
Tom Atkins as Michael Hunsaker
Darlene Love as Trish Murtaugh
Jackie Swanson as Amanda Hunsaker
Traci Wolfe as Rianne Murtaugh
Damon Hines as Nick Murtaugh
Ebonie Smith as Carrie Murtaugh
Steve Kahan as Captain Murphy
Mary Ellen Trainor as Dr. Stephanie Woods (Police Psychiatrist)
Ed O'Ross as Mendez
Lycia Naff as Dixie
Jimmie F. Skaggs as Drug Dealer #1
Jason Ronard as Drug Dealer #2
Blackie Dammett as Drug Dealer #3
Al Leong as Endo
Jack Thibeau as McCaskey
Grand Bush as Boyette
Recent UCLA graduate Shane Black wrote the screenplay in mid-1985. Black stated that his intention was to do an "urban western" inspired by Dirty Harry where a violent character "reviled for what he did, what he is capable of, the things he believed in" is eventually recruited for being the one that could solve the problem. The protagonists would be everymen policemen, "guys shuffling in a town like Los Angeles searching for something noble as justice when they're just guys in washed and worn suits seeking a paycheck".
According to Black, his original first draft of the script was very different and much darker than the final film. It was 140 pages long and both the plot and characters were different, and action scenes were also much bigger. The ending of the script contained a chase scene with helicopters and a trailer truck full of cocaine exploding over Hollywood Hills with cocaine snowing over the Hollywood sign. Black hated this first draft and initially discarded it but later picked it up again and re-wrote it into the new drafts that were eventually used for filming.
His agent sent the Lethal Weapon script to various studios, being rejected before Warner Bros. executive Mark Canton took a liking to it. Canton brought along producer Joel Silver, who loved the story and worked with Black to further develop the script. Director Richard Donner also brought in writer Jeffrey Boam to do some uncredited re-writes on Black's script after he found parts of it to be too dark. Boam mostly added some more humor into the script, and later did a complete re-write of Shane Black and Warren Murphy's rejected script for the second film. He also wrote the script for the third film and an unused draft for the fourth film.
After the script was purchased for $250,000, studio production executives offered it to director Richard Donner, who also loved it. Leonard Nimoy was one of the choices considered for directing, but he did not feel comfortable doing action films, and he was working on Three Men and a Baby at the time. With those key elements in place, the search began for the right combination of actors to play Riggs and Murtaugh.
Mel Gibson was invited by Richard Donner as he was interested in working with the actor after Ladyhawke. Casting director Marion Dougherty first suggested teaming Gibson with Danny Glover, given Murtaugh had no set ethnicity in the script. She arranged for Gibson to fly in from his home in Sydney while Glover was flown in from Chicago, where he was appearing in a play, to read through the script. According to a June 2007 Vanity Fair magazine article, Bruce Willis was considered for the Riggs role. This is referenced in the spoof of the Lethal Weapon films, Loaded Weapon 1. Bruce (as John McClane) appears after the villains attack the wrong beach residence, looking for the protagonist.
According to Donner, "It took about two hours and by the time we were done, I was in seventh heaven. They found innuendoes; they found laughter where I never saw it; they found tears where they didn't exist before; and, most importantly, they found a relationship — all in just one reading. So if you ask about casting... it was magical, just total dynamite."
Explains Gibson, "This particular story was a cut above others I had passed on, because the action is really a sideline which heightens the story of these two great characters. I picture Riggs as an almost Chaplinesque figure, a guy who doesn't expect anything from life and even toys with the idea of taking his own. He's not like these stalwarts who come down from Mt. Olympus and wreak havoc and go away. He's somebody who doesn't look like he's set to go off until he actually does."
The draw for Glover was equally strong. Fresh from his success as Mister in The Color Purple, he felt the role of Roger Murtaugh offered a whole new range of character expression and experience. "Aside from the chance to work with Mel, which turned out to be pure pleasure, one of the reasons I jumped at this project was the family aspect. The chance to play intricate relationships and subtle humor that exist in every close family group was an intriguing challenge, as was playing a guy turning 50. Murtaugh's a little cranky about his age until everything he loves is threatened. His reawakening parallels Riggs'."
Both actors were signed by early spring 1986. Gibson and Glover then flew home to pack, and, returning to Los Angeles, began an intensive two months of physical training and preparation. Meanwhile, the crucial role of Joshua was settled when Gary Busey asked for a chance to read for the part. An established star since his Academy Award-nominated performance in The Buddy Holly Story, Busey had not auditioned for a film in years. "I had butterflies," he said. "I'd never played a bad guy. And no one had seen me since I'd lost 60 pounds and got back into shape. But I decided to take the initiative in order to have the opportunity to work with Dick, Joel, Mel and Danny. I'm constantly looking for someone to pull the best performance out of me and any of those guys could. They even talked me into dyeing my hair!" In his E! True Hollywood Story biography, Busey says he was hired to play Joshua because they were looking for someone big and menacing enough to be a believable foe for Mel Gibson. Busey also credits the film for reviving his failing film career.
Stunt coordinator Bobby Bass planned and supervised all phases of Gibson's and Glover's intense pre-production training; physical conditioning, weight workouts, and weapons handling and safety. Bass also used his own military experiences to bring a greater depth of understanding to the Riggs character. To familiarize the actors with the specialized skills and sensibilities acquired by undercover cops, arrangements were made for Gibson and Glover to spend time in the field accompanying working L.A.P.D. officers. Throughout filming, technical advisers from the L.A.P.D. as well as the L.A. County Sheriff's Department worked closely with Donner and the actors to ensure authenticity.
Lethal Weapon began principal photography on August 6, 1986, shooting on location throughout the Los Angeles area, as well as on the backlot facilities of Burbank Studios. Filming began in Long Beach, with helicopter camera work that would set the tone for the opening title sequence and the first spectacular stunt of the film. The company then moved to Palos Verdes, Santa Monica, Studio City, West Hollywood, and Inglewood with one week out-of-town in El Mirage, an enormous dry lake bed outside Victorville.
From the early pre-production stages of Lethal Weapon, Richard Donner wanted Mel Gibson's final fight sequence to be unique, yet also to make a strong statement about the characters involved. Coincidentally, assistant director Willie Simmons, a former Marine, had an avid interest in unusual forms of martial arts, rooted in Africa. He invited one of his friend practitioners to the production office to demonstrate for Donner. The result was the hiring of three technical advisors, each a master of a particular martial arts style.
Cedric Adams was the first expert brought in. "Adams thought the best possible way to show just how lethal Riggs really is — is to show his mastery of a form of martial arts never before seen onscreen," said Donner. Adams taught the actors the movements of Capoeira. A second technical advisor, Dennis Newsome, brought jailhouse rock to the fight sequence. The third technical advisor was Rorion Gracie, who specialized in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
The filming was spread over four complete nights, shooting from dusk to dawn, resulting in an edited sequence that would last minutes on screen. Principal photography was completed in mid-November 1986. Hollywood city officials hung Christmas decorations on Hollywood Blvd. a few months early so that the scenes shot for the film, particularly the action scenes near the film's end, looked like they happened at the end of the year.
Legendary stunt man Dar Robinson was killed in a motorcycle accident shortly after principal photography was finished. Director Richard Donner dedicated the film to him. Jackie Swanson performed the high fall on her own. She was trained by Dar Robinson. Richard Donner's directing credit appears after Amanda Hunsaker leaps to her death. This is a reference to a joke that Richard Donner films often have sequences of people falling (Lee Remick in The Omen and Margot Kidder in Superman).
One sequence shows a theatre marquee advertising The Lost Boys, a film Donner was producing at the time. A short segment of the 1951 film A Christmas Carol is shown on a television towards the film's end.
Michael Kamen, who just completed work on Highlander, composed the score for Lethal Weapon. The guitar part of Riggs' theme was performed by Eric Clapton. Kamen and Clapton had worked together on the music for the 1985 BBC TV series Edge of Darkness (the feature adaptation of which would later, by coincidence, star Mel Gibson). The saxophone part of Murtaugh's theme was performed by David Sanborn. The Christmas song "Jingle Bell Rock", performed by Bobby Helms, is played during the film's opening credits. Honeymoon Suite's song, "Lethal Weapon," is played during the film's end credits without being credited.
Released on March 6, 1987, Lethal Weapon was No. 1 at the box office for three weeks before Blind Date supplanted it. It grossed $120.2 million worldwide and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing (Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander, Vern Poore and Bill Nelson) (losing to The Last Emperor). It is widely considered to be one of the best buddy cop films of all time, influencing numerous "buddy cop" films such as Tango & Cash, Bad Boys and the Rush Hour series.
The film holds a score of 84% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 51 reviews; the average score is 7 out of 10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The most successful installment in a phenomenally successful franchise, Lethal Weapon helped redefine action movies for the 1980s and 1990s". Variety wrote, "Lethal Weapon is a film teetering on the brink of absurdity when it gets serious, but thanks to its unrelenting energy and insistent drive, it never quite falls." Richard Schickel of Time called it "Mad Max meets The Cosby Show", saying that it works better than expected. Richard Harrington of The Washington Post described it as "a vivid, visceral reminder of just how exciting an action film can be". At The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "The film is all fast action, noisy stunts and huge, often unflattering close-ups, but it packs an undeniable wallop." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars, saying Donner "tops himself".
It was nominated by the American Film Institute for AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies, AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills, and AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains for Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh.
Lethal Weapon has been released on VHS and DVD numerous times, along with a single Blu-ray Disc release. The first DVD was released in 1997 and featured the film's theatrical version. The Director's Cut was released in 2000. Since then, numerous sets have been released that contain all four films in the series (featuring the same DVDs). The theatrical version was also released on Blu-ray in 2006.
An alternate opening and ending were both filmed and can be seen on the Lethal Weapon 4 DVD. The alternate opening featured Martin Riggs drinking alone in a bar where he is accosted by a couple of thugs who attack him for his money, but are easily subdued by Riggs. Director Richard Donner felt the film should open with a brighter look at Riggs, and replaced the bar scene with the scene in which Riggs awakens in his trailer. The alternate ending featured Riggs telling Murtaugh not to retire. Without even thinking about the possibility of sequels, Donner decided that Riggs and Murtaugh's relationship as one of friendship, and filmed the ending that appears in the completed film.
In addition to the film's theatrical release, an extended Director's Cut version was released later on DVD. The Director's Cut version is longer (117 minutes) than the original theatrical release version (110 minutes), and features additional scenes. One extended scene depicts Riggs dispatching a sniper who had been firing at children in a playground. In another scene, Riggs picks up a street-walking prostitute, but instead of having sex with her, he takes her home to watch The Three Stooges on TV, thus illustrating his loneliness following the death of his wife.
On January 19, 2011, Warner Bros. announced plans to reboot the Lethal Weapon franchise without Gibson and Glover. The new franchise was set to feature the same characters but a brand new cast. Will Beall was hired to write the script. A television version premiered in September 2016 on Fox starring Clayne Crawford as Martin Riggs and Damon Wayans as Roger Murtaugh.