Detectives Riggs and Murtaugh are up to the sort of mischief in "Lethal Weapon 4" that's made the series a successful popcorn entertainment over the past decade. The quintessence of the buddy cop pic, "LW4" is big on action, playful banter and just enough plot to keep our attention from wandering.

Detectives Riggs and Murtaugh are up to the sort of mischief in “Lethal Weapon 4″ that’s made the series a successful popcorn entertainment over the past decade. The quintessence of the buddy cop pic, “LW4″ is big on action, playful banter and just enough plot to keep our attention from wandering. It matters little that the film is rife with non sequiturs, nonsense and nihilistic violence, because its heroes are so darn buoyant and charming. In the current climate of big movies with low entertainment quotients, pic will stand out because it delivers the goods, making it a leading prospect for the summer’s B.O. crown, with domestic revenue likely to rival installments two and three.

Bare-bones plot centers on a group of transplanted Chinese triad members in Los Angeles who are smuggling in families from the mainland. Of course, such penny-ante criminal activity is just the tip of the iceberg in a much more nefarious operation. But the film is as concerned with what’s going on in the margins as it is with the evil doings of martial arts master and triad leader Wah Sing Ku (Jet Li).

Pic literally starts with a bang, as the central duo encounter a felon in a bulletproof suit destroying downtown L.A. with an automatic weapon and a flame thrower. It’s a pyro-powered set piece that exists only to dazzle, in the spirit of Bond pre-credit sequences. But the 007 yarns have supported this type of mayhem with considerably tighter scripts than the one credited here to Channing Gibson.

In the six years since Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) were last on the beat for the LAPD, a lot has happened in their lives. Riggs is about to be a papa as a result of his relationship with Internal Affairs officer Lorna Cole (Rene Russo), and Murtaugh is on the cusp of grandfatherhood, courtesy of his daughter Rianne (Traci Wolfe) and an unnamed father, whose identity is obvious to everyone but the seasoned cop.

The partners have been promoted not for outstanding leadership qualities but because their wanton carnage in tracking perps has resulted in the department’s loss of insurance. But if the idea was to give them desk jobs, that’s certainly not being enforced in this script.

Adding to the humor mix is Leo Getz (Joe Pesci), the mob accountant intro’d in chapter two, who’s now a private detective, and Lee Butters (Chris Rock), a cop with an attitude and a staccato riff. When you connect all the dots, the film takes the shape of a comfortable old shoe: Its success is predicated on recycling the self-deprecating attitudes and eye-popping stunts of past outings and tossing in some shamelessly sentimental touches to mute the story’s sadistic tone.

In the absence of logic, “Lethal Weapon 4″ powers along at a relentless pace, with pristine production values, while thesps Gibson, Glover, Pesci and Russo have settled into roles that fit their personas as snugly as Italian suits.The addition of Rock — particularly in a hilarious tirade with Pesci — enlivens the piece and broadens the appeal of the series, which has been skirting self-parody. As the chief villain, Li is a mixed bag: His physical prowess is nonpareil, but his limited command of English inadvertently casts him as the sort of Asian devil that borders on caricature.

Series vet Richard Donner once again assumes the helm, with a game attitude and, this time round, bigger things to blow up. The director deftly effects a dazzling freeway chase and a well-choreographed duel-to-the-death sequence. Still, the finale is just shy of the balletic quality of John Woo and Tsui Hark’s best Hong Kong actioners.

Lethal Weapon 4

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Silver Pictures production in association with Doshudo Prods. Produced by Joel Silver, Richard Donner. Executive producers, Steve Perry, Jim Van Wyck. Co-producers, J. Miles Goodloe, Dan Cracchiolo. Directed by Richard Donner. Screenplay, Channing Gibson; story, Jonathan Lemkin, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, based on characters created by Shane Black.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Andrzej Bartkowiak; editors, Frank J. Urioste, Dallas Puett; music, Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton, David Sanborn; production designer, J. Michael Riva; art director, David Klassen; set decorator, Lauri Gaffin; costume designer, Ha Nguyen; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Tim Cooney; special effects coordinator, Jon Belyeu; martial arts choreography, Cory Yuen, Huen Chiu Ku, Chi Wah Ling; associate producers, Ilyse Reutlinger, Spencer Franklin, Jennifer Gwartz; assistant director, Van Wyck; casting, Marion Dougherty. Reviewed at the Mann Village, L.A., July 6, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 127 MIN.

With

Martin Riggs - Mel Gibson Roger Murtaugh - Danny Glover Leo Getz - Joe Pesci Lorna Cole - Rene Russo Lee Butters - Chris Rock Wah Sing Ku - Jet Li Capt. Ed Murphy - Steve Kahan Uncle Benny - Kim Chan Trish Murtaugh - Darlene Love Rianne - Traci Wolfe Hong - Eddy Ko Ping - Steven Lam Rabbi - Richard Libertini
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