"Lethal Weapon 4," the latest installment of the lucrative action franchise starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, practically aches to be all movies to all people. And the summer blockbuster, a relentlessly noisy symphony of tightly edited car chases, fiery explosions, bloody shoot-outs and brutal fistfights, nearly achieves that feat.
Richard Donner, the series' director and an old hand at slick commercial fare ("Maverick," "The Goonies"), in a less-than-subtle effort to up the ante, stitches together disparate elements designed to pull in myriad demographics. If you don't fit one of the target groups, you might want to check your pulse.
For instance, the fourth Gibson-Glover vehicle in 11 years, doubles as a mismatched-buddy movie . . . and a warm celebration of family life.
As usual, Los Angeles police-detective partners Martin Riggs (Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Glover) bicker their way through battles against various bad guys. The opening scene, a war against an armored, flame-throwing giant who might be Robocop's human cousin, has the crusty citizens of peace revealing the impending arrival of Riggs' child and Murtaugh's grandchild. The movie also delivers two weddings (one off-screen), tender domestic scenes between Riggs and his pregnant girlfriend, Lorna Cole (Rene Russo), and a grand finale in a maternity award.
"Lethal Weapon 4" is both a high-pitched urban adventure . . . and a plea for tolerance.
Our heroes, along with jabbering con-man sidekick Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) and angst-driven junior officer Lee Butters (funny former "SNL" guy Chris Rock) team up to wipe out an Asian crime lord (Hong Kong star Jet Li) and his associates and enemies, variously involved in slavery, counterfeiting and, of course, murder. Donner churns out action sequences -- one features a car jumping off a highway, smashing into a high-rise building, plowing through an office and crashing out the other side -- as thrilling as they get.
Along the way, Murtaugh learns to live with Butters, his new son-in-law, and to understand that the Chinese people love their children, too. Riggs bonds with the annoying Leo, who turns in a touching graveside story. During a group photo at the film's feel-good conclusion, someone asks if the black-and-white bunch are all friends. "No, we're family," they shout.
"Lethal Weapon 4," on the whole, lives up to the hype, giving more bang for the buck than any summer movie this side of "Armageddon." The craftsmanship is top-notch, the guy-guy camaraderie is likable and the physical and verbal comedy comes fast and furious.
Gibson and Glover are adequately compelling, perhaps saving their creative energies for more personal projects, while Pesci plays one note (squeaky whining) particularly well and Rock outdoes everybody as a fast-talking sharpie just as susceptible to an ulcer as his father-in-law.
Just below the surface, though, are disturbing strains of racism, sexism, homophobia and general intolerance.
Murtaugh says he's helping an Asian family fight deportation because of his ancestors' own fate as slaves. At the same time, he plays the fool at his day job, remaining the eyes-buggin' butt of his partner's jokes. Caucasians and African-Americans alike toss around comic jibes at the expense of every Asian in sight. The gifted Russo mostly is relegated to the role of woman in distress. Much mileage is made out of a misunderstanding over Butters' sexual orientation. And Leo is called a leprechaun and a "little fella."
Sure, we can all get along, as Donner and screenwriters Channing Gibson, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar suggest in "Lethal Weapon 4." But that will remain a pipe dream if we treat each other the way their creations do.