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Nashville Scene The Donner Party

A half-cocked "Lethal Weapon 4"

By Noel Murray, Jim Ridley, and Donna Bowman

JULY 20, 1998:  It's hard to believe that when Lethal Weapon was released in 1987, it was the state-of-the-art in action. Not that buddy-cop pictures were ever really original, but director Richard Donner, producer Joel Silver, and screenwriter Shane Black gave their comically bickering duo an edgy twist by making one of them a dangerously violent, suicidal psychopath. By 1990's sequel, both partners had become equally brutal in their treatment of the bad guys, and Donner had perfected a blend of rapid-fire editing and stream-of-incomprehensible-dialogue that subsequently ruined nearly every action film for the next five years.

The Lethal Weapon buddies are L.A. policemen Riggs and Murtaugh, played respectively by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. In the just-released Lethal Weapon 4, Gibson's character has evolved from a nothing-to-lose nut, mourning the death of his wife, to a sweet-natured bad cop with a live-in girlfriend and a baby on the way. Meanwhile, Glover's Murtaugh, who was constantly repeating the mantra, "I'm getting too old for this shit," has become addicted to rushing out on his imperiled family so he can participate in a high-speed chase or terminate a lackey with extreme prejudice.

Lethal Weapon 4 is ostensibly about Riggs and Murtaugh's attempt to thwart a Chinatown crime boss who's smuggling in his countrymen and exploiting them as slave labor. More than ever, though, the story is an afterthought--an excuse for the leads to do their shtick while Joe Pesci (reprising his role as nattering Leo Getz) and Chris Rock (as a hilariously profane young cop) babble away on the edge of the frame. What's more, three previous films have added so many subplots that the only way to resolve them all is to have Riggs and Murtaugh shout lines like "Your wife is pregnant!" while emptying a clip into some random criminal. Even with the economizing, Lethal Weapon 4 dawdles for an hour--45 minutes before the actual plot begins, 15 minutes after it's resolved--to give every minor character ample time in the spotlight.

The series has also been getting increasingly surreal, heightening its violence and physical comedy until the two have become confusingly intertwined. Some lowlights from previous installments include the scene in Lethal Weapon 2 in which Murtaugh repeatedly riddles some henchman with a nail gun and then says (ha ha) "nailed the sucker"; or the scene in Lethal Weapon 3 in which Riggs and Murtaugh, demoted to beat cops, physically assault a jaywalker. The running "gag" in the fourth Lethal Weapon is how callously the partners knock off skulking Chinese thugs.

What makes the relentless, ridiculous violence of the Lethal Weapon movies that much odder is Richard Donner's habit of sneaking liberal humanist messages into his films. Through posters and dialogue, Donner has tackled dolphin-safe tuna, apartheid, abortion, gun control, the heartless U.S. immigration policy, and animal rights. All the while, though, his films treat human beings as disposable evil machines to be slaughtered indiscriminately.

Still, as appalling as Lethal Weapon 4 can be, there's something about it that's almost...quaint. The state of the art has changed, and films like LW4 and Armageddon seem archaic compared to John Woo's pop opera Face/Off or Jackie Chan's kinetic kung-fu comedies. Donner nods to the new bosses by casting Hong Kong martial-arts master Jet Li as his primary bad guy, and by employing visual references to Woo's gun-in-the-face poses and to Chan's outlandish stunts.

The problem is that the audience gets so charged up by the Hong Kong-inspired stuff that it makes the standard Donner action scenes seem all the more tired. My wife and I started chanting "Go Jet Li!" every time he appeared onscreen, and we mourned his requisite impaling at the end. (This isn't spoiling any surprises--the price of being a cool bad guy these days is a good impaling.) As for Donner, Gibson, and Glover, they really are getting too old for this shit. I think we all are.

--Noel Murray

The little red one

DreamWorks is dreamworking overtime to sell its upcoming Saving Private Ryan as an antiwar classic, with advance hype so hysterical it constitutes an invasion in itself. ("The last great invasion of the last great war," announces the trailer, in that tone that says only a dunce wouldn't think this is important.) DreamWorks makes no such claims of greatness for its current release, Small Soldiers, but without having seen Private Ryan, I'd guess that this twisted little piece of pop subversion is a much harsher rebuke of militaristic aggression.

The closest Hollywood has come to a live-action Simpsons episode, Small Soldiers opens with the takeover of Heartland Toys by Globotech, a defense contractor forced to diversify after the demise of our foreign enemies. (Its motto: "Turning swords into ploughshares.") Merge Heartland's creative department with Globotech's surplus hardware, and what do you get? Mobile commando action figures outfitted with weapons and artificial intelligence--which subsequently learn how to punch their way out of boxes and terrorize other toys. The vicious snap-on soldiers wind up in a generic Middle American suburb, where a misunderstood teen (Gregory Smith), his dreamy neighbor (Kirsten Dunst), and a race of benevolent rival toys (including an adorable one-eyed beastie called Ocula) must stop their onslaught.

Fueled by the Mad-magazine sensibility of director Joe Dante--the American cinema's premier psycho-adolescent wiseguy--Small Soldiers is essentially Toy Story as conceived by a bunch of juvenile glue-huffers. The movie's basic joke is that the bloodthirsty commando toys (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones and about a third of the original Dirty Dozen) reenact the beefy clichs of war movies ranging from Patton to Apocalypse Now. Gung-ho gruntspeak has never sounded sillier or more impotent coming from the mouths of dolls. As the attack escalates, Dante places macho bloodlust in a pint-size context that makes it properly ridiculous. His puny commandos may talk a good game, but let 'em meet a housewife with a tennis racket, and they're toast.

The sickest gag--also the funniest and most provocative--is that the violence is more graphic (and hence more realistic) than any grown-up war movie could ever dare. Commandos get their plastic limbs crushed in bicycle spokes and ground up in garbage compactors; it's not a good sign when an embattled suburbanite revs up his lawn mower. Early reviews blasted the movie for this mayhem--one even misapplied the term "gore"--but Dante sets up this cartoon carnage as the logical extension of playing war. We're so much more sentimental about toys, the signifiers of childhood and innocence, than we are about soldiers. But in a real war, troops are ordered about as indiscriminately as action figures, and they get ripped apart as if they were plastic men. Funny how nobody complains about sending kids to Mulan, which makes combat look like a fitness camp.

My only gripe is that the production sometimes seems rushed, as if the filmmakers didn't have time to follow through on some of their brightest ideas. For example, it's too bad the good toys, the Gorgonites (voiced by the virtuosic Spinal Tap ensemble), don't come up with an ingenious nonviolent plan to defeat the commandos. Nevertheless, there's plenty here for sick minds to enjoy--the freakily satirical moment when the commandos mistake a Barbie-like collection for a whorehouse, the eerie scene in which Dunst is attacked by a swarm of hostile dolls. Skeptical of authority, distrustful of might, Small Soldiers will indeed warp your kids' minds, and in the very best ways.

--Jim Ridley

Far from the Madeline crowd

A good children's movie is hard to find, as every year's crop of would-be kiddie classics proves. Madeline has it tougher than most, since it's aimed at children who haven't graduated from picture books yet, and whose attention span runs about the length of a bedtime story. Keeping this audience fidget-free for almost two hours of gentle storytelling is, by all indications, an insurmountable challenge.

As the red-haired, straw-hatted Parisian girl Madeline, little Hatty Jones is adorable and full of spunk. She gets into storybook situations like trips to the art museum, the circus, and the Seine (the last being rather a damp one). She's brave when she has her appendix out and takes the lead in mischief-making at her school. But unfortunately, she has to face scenarios dreamed up by movie-makers in addition to those imagined by her creator, Ludwig Bemelmans--and movie-makers like the conflict provided by bumbling crooks, a kidnapping plot, a car chase, and the threatened sale of Madeline's school.

These attempts to provide enough conflict to keep kids interested throughout the whole movie come off as clichd and tacked on. No matter how beautiful the locations or commanding the supporting performances (by Frances McDormand as Miss Clavel and Nigel Hawthorne as Lord Covington), no movie with this much filler can hold onto its young audience. Madeline might have more impact on home video, without the distractions of bored seatmates. For now, even its young target audience will enjoy Mulan more; or better yet, rent A Little Princess and see exactly how a good story can quiet down your kids for hours at a time.

--Donna Bowman

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