Thursday, June 07, 2012

Taking a moment to appreciate Mel Gibson

Yes, you read that right. And it's not because I caught the Criterion Collection version of "Bird on a Wire."

No, this quick reflection is the product of a recent viewing of one of Mad Mel's best, "Lethal Weapon." We recently discovered the cheaper Movies on Demand channel at our house, which has rustled up a bit of nostalgia. For my wife, it was the chance to queue up "Pretty in Pink." ("James Spader looks so young!") Meanwhile, I was scrolling through the menu the other night and came across the whole batch of "Lethal Weapon" movies. Hmmm, I thought, it's been a while since I saw the original. Let's give it a whirl.

First, wrap your head around this: It's been more than 25 years since a long-locked Gibson brought the crazy eyes and suicidal tendencies to the big screen. Maybe that's not surprising considering his career arc; I mean, the guy has risen high and fallen pretty damn far, right? Even so, a quarter-century is a decent chunk of time.

Second, this remains a really good movie. Yeah, everyone remembers the old cop/crazy cop schtick, the bang-bang and the blueprint for countless films to follow. Then there's more subdued but equally crazy-eyed Gary Busey. ("Mind if I test-drive your Audi?") But more than that, this movie moves. After an opening credit sequence that takes us through the L.A. skyline and right to a high-rise suicide, we meet our two protagonists and quickly get into the mystery. At the same time, we keep learning about each guy -- not so much that things slow down, but enough to make them seem like real cops feeling each other out. It all feels pretty natural, and as we've seen with so many imitators, that's not easy.

But the real point of this post is this: Gibson is amazing in this movie. Stay with me here, because I know what you're thinking: Yeah, he's all right, but let's calm down. No, I won't! I've seen "Lethal Weapon" a good dozen times, but this is the first time I can recall thinking, "Man, he's bringing it on all fronts, and maybe on the side, too."

It's not just the action stuff, the wisecracks and the crazy act, although those are solid. When you think about it, he easily could have stuck with this and made a comfortable living trading roles with Bruce Willis. Where he seals the deal, at least for me, is in the moments between those scenes: telling Murtaugh about he's f*cked either way, talking about the shot he made in Laos, the banter at the firing range ... there's never a false note, and that's what makes "Lethal Weapon" probably his best performance to that point. Sure, I liked the "Mad Max" movies as much as anyone, and "The Year of Living Dangerously" was an admirable effort. But this is a great role, and I found myself thinking, "Man, maybe Gibson should have been nominated that year."

(I just looked it up. "Lethal Weapon" was nominated in one category, Best Sound. Michael Douglas won Best Actor for his Pat Riley impersonation in "Wall Street," and the other nominees were William Hurt in "Broadcast News," Marcello Mastroianni in something called "Dark Eyes," Jack Nicholson in "Ironweed" and Robin Williams in "Good Morning, Vietnam." Yeah, sure ... they're good. But Marcello Mastroianni? That guy sucks!)

In the end, this is no big deal. Just a musing after watching probably one of my favorite action movies from my adolescence. As we know, Gibson eventually did all right when he put on the kilt and blue face paint. He kicked around a bit after that before finding Jesus and proceeding off the deep end. Now he's still a pariah. And that's OK. He's nuts. But for a minute -- or perhaps for the 110-minute running time -- let's remember when he was simply pretending to be crazy in "Lethal Weapon." He was pretending, right?