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Automatic 'Weapon'

Movie review: The latest installment in the Gibson-Glover cop franchise is packed with stunts but short on plot.

July 10, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

If we get the movies we deserve, what have we done to be worthy of "Lethal Weapon 4"?

A fourth-generation copy of a distant original, "Lethal 4" is less a movie than a habit. Like a too-long-running TV show, it makes a fetish of familiarity, featuring the usual faces doing one more time what they've done repeatedly in the past.

Because moviegoers can be counted upon to follow the naughty-boy police team of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover off the face of the Earth if necessary, "Lethal 4" apparently went into production without anything like a finished script.

It was also churned out, if news reports are to be believed, even though none of the principals particularly wanted to make it or cared about any aspect except the size of the payday. The result is a calculated, cynical piece of business that epitomizes the creative bankruptcy and contempt for the audience that infects so much of the blockbuster side of Hollywood.

Four people may have bravely put their names on the "Lethal 4" script (screenplay by Channing Gibson, story by Jonathan Lemkin and Alfred Gough & Miles Millar), but it's disturbing to see such an inert, haphazard piece of business reach the screen. There's no plot worth describing, no repartee wittier than "Oh shut up," no acting moments that rise above the level of posing.

What becomes obvious is that all things verbal are intended only to mark time until the next stunt. Anything capable of taking up space is given a chance, from an out-of-nowhere diatribe about cell phones to illogical and short-lived promotions to captain for our heroes, which lead to padded sequences of everyone congratulating them on their good luck.

Those action blocks, which range from oil tanker trucks exploding to houses going up in flames to a car hurtling in and out of an unfortunate high-rise, are done with the steady professionalism that marks the work of veteran action director Richard Donner.

But even destroying as many vehicles as a demolition derby and displaying beatings severe enough to disable a horse (including having a seriously pregnant woman brawling and breaking chairs with no ill effects) can't make up for the absence of the kind of surreal flair a virtuoso like John Woo brings to the table.

As has become the rule with the series, "Lethal 4" starts with a particularly showy sequence, during which detectives Martin Riggs (Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Glover) learn some intimate secrets. Riggs finds out that his live-in girlfriend, Lorna Cole (Rene Russo), is pregnant, and Murtaugh learns that his daughter Rianne is similarly expecting.

After this sequence, "Lethal 4" moves forward nine months, with Riggs lackadaisically trying to decide whether he and Cole should get married and Murtaugh attempting with equal lack of vigor to determine who his future son-in-law might be.

The action half of "Lethal's" plot revolves around the smuggling of Chinese refugees into Los Angeles, where they're forced into the equivalent of slavery to pay for their passage. All signs point to the sinister Uncle Benny, as in "if it's dirty and Chinese, Benny's doing it."

One of the least pleasant aspects of "Lethal 4" is the kind of things it finds funny. Lots of jokes are made at the expense of the Chinese, from mocking jibes about "flied lice" to threats to stick egg rolls into various parts of the human anatomy. Equally misguided are the contortions Murtaugh goes through when he thinks he is the object of a gay crush.

In an attempt to shake up this moribund franchise a la James Bond, "Lethal 4"--having wisely decided that the unhappy Leo Getz (a struggling Joe Pesci) is not exactly a sidekick for the ages--has brought in a pair of new faces.

Chris Rock, who plays the earnest Det. Lee Butters, is straitjacketed by his underwritten role. Chinese action star Jet Li, playing a villain for the first time, not surprisingly benefits from having almost no dialogue in English. His nifty Hong Kong martial arts moves add a welcome intensity to the picture, but even Bruce Lee couldn't bring this baby back from the dead.

* MPAA rating: R, for violence and language. Times guidelines: one graphic strangulation, one repulsive impaling, standard explosions.

'Lethal Weapon 4'

Mel Gibson: Martin Riggs

Danny Glover: Roger Murtaugh

Joe Pesci: Leo Getz

Rene Russo: Lorna Cole

Chris Rock: Lee Butters

Jet Li: Wah Sing Ku

A Silver Pictures production in association with Doshudo Productions, released by Warner Bros. Director Richard Donner. Producers Joel Silver, Richard Donner. Executive producers Steve Perry, Jim Van Wyck. Screenplay by Channing Gibson, story by Jonathan Lemkin and Alfred Gough & Miles Millar. Cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak. Editors Frank J. Urioste, Dallas Puett. Costumes Ha Nguyen. Music Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton, Dan Cracchiolo. Production design J. Michael Riva. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.

* Playing in general release throughout Southern California.

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