Lethal Weapon was the farthest man from home. Every other action franchise from the end of the 20th century has either been revived or is about to be from Macguyver to Bad Boys. But, thanks in no small part to the colossal public flameouts of one of its stars, Lethal Weapon has remained in the corner. It’s felt like it needed to be there too; the excess and cheerfully racist stereotypes of the later movies in particular a bad fit for the modern audience. Plus the basic premise (Deathbringer loses wife and experiences MANPAAAAAAAIN!) is dangerously close to fringing..
Racial stereotypes, mostly, aside, all of that is in the new TV version. ANd yet, it’s one of the most surprising hours of TV I’ve seen this year.
A huge part of that is down to the casting. Repositioning Riggs as a former Navy SEAL and good ol’ boy is an inspired choice and putting Clayne Crawford in the role is the icing on the cake. Crawford, a memorable two episode guest star on the magnificent Leverage, is one of those actors who has been patiently waiting for his shot for a while now. This is it and he grabs it with both hands.
His Riggs has none of the showiness of Gibson’s original. He’s still very charming and very, very funny but there’s this persistent bass note of calm when Crawford is on screen. This Riggs is a trauma survivor a couple of times over, a veteran and a widower. He’s a man who has been absolutely, categorically broken. And he’s still here. And there are times when he’s really not happy about that fact. The episode’s best moments are all silent ones and live in the second when the charm fall away. The Murtaugh family dinner in particular is a beautifully acted moment but a later scene hits even harder. Leaving Roger’s house after another visit, Riggs is asked if he really wants to die. He responds that he does, but he can’t do it himself because his wife would be ashamed of him. It’s completely unguarded and sits right up there with the 10th Doctor’s ‘…Her name was Rose’ as an emotional hammer blow.
The show doesn’t just get Riggs right, it gets him perfectly. There is, one episode in, a strong case for this being the definitive version of the character. The MANPAIN! Is absolutely there but it’s not the only thing present and Crawford’s careful research into grief and depression has paid off in spades.
If there was a problem here, it was going to be Damon Wayans. Wayans is very good at precisely one note of comedy and the thought of Murtaugh as a chest thumping alpha male didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. I’m delighted to report however that he’s quite good here. This Murtaugh, recovering from a heart attack at the birth of his latest child, is a cautious, measured man but by no means a coward. He’s the moral and emotional centre to Riggs’ grinning Southern id and the two men have an instant, and instinctively funny, chemistry. Better still, the show cleverly ties them together at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Rog, post heart attack, wants very badly to live. Riggs, still grieving, wants very badly to die. Both keep getting in the other’s way and hilarity actually does ensue.
The rest of the cast don’t get much of a look in here but there’s already some promising hints being dropped about them. The Fast and The Furious‘ Jordana Brewster is Doctor Cahill, Riggs’ department mandated shrink. Keesha Sharp is excellent as Trish Murtaugh and brings easy compassion and intelligence to the role. Plus she outfunnies Wayans twice, which is no mean feat. The always excellent Kevin Rahm is on deck as Captain Avery, Murtaugh’s partner turned boss and Johnathan Fernandez is Scorcese. He’s a fantastically laconic M.E. who went to film school, hence the name. Others are being dropped in later and they all need some more space but as a setting out the shop episode goes, this is about as good as it’s possible to get.
Especially as the action is impressively handled too. An LA Grand Prix car chase is great fun and while the closing action sequence is a little over-directed its more than made up for by the character beat it leads to. Riggs, unlike his movie counterpart, really, seriously isn’t fooling. He wants to die and the end sequence here sees him jump at another opportunity. Again, this is Crawford just nailing it. There’s one line, delivered with note perfect charm and desperation, that made me tear up. He managed that more than once. In an episode of Lethal Weapon for God’s sake.
The show still has some of the problems of the original movies. There’s a sudden jump scare/death joke that feels mean in a way nothing else here does and I’m honestly not sure how many times Captain Avery can bust them down to traffic or suspend them before it gets old. But, before the episode started, I was fully expecting a 42 minute train wreck. What I got instead was a considered, even compassionate exploration of the after effects of grief, Damon Wayans showing up for work and an old concept near perfectly retooled. Lethal Weapon really is back. And this time, it looks like they genuinely aren’t taking any crap.