Motivation: Detective Riggs and Officer McClane both are both police officers with “marital troubles” so to speak. Riggs’s wife has just been murdered and his character arc is Riggs inability to deal with his loss. This is what Riggs needs to get over the loss by the end of the movie. McClane has separated from his wife (this trip is the first time they are seeing each other in almost 5 months) so by saving his wife it also probably saves his marriage. This makes his character arc stronger. Point McClane.
Skills: McClane lacks in this department, he is an ordinary police officer with just plain old ingenuity as his skill set. Riggs however is a trained Special Forces sniper, who is deadly accurate with most firearms, and can do that crazy-pop-your-shoulder-back-into its-socket-after-it’s-dislocated thing. Point Riggs.
Humor: This is where McClane has a huge advantage; Bruce Willis started his career on the show Moonlighting, a comedy television show. Before Lethal Weapon, Gibson had done three Mad Max films and Gallipoli. Although many would argue Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a comedy, Gibson doesn’t have the comedic pedigree of Willis. Point McClane. *
*Some will contend (coughHarrisoncough) that there is more humor in the Lethal Weapon however; if you watch the movie you will see that the humor is based on the report between Riggs and Murtaugh while Die Hard humor stems from McClane. It’s unfair to say because one movie has two guys to create humor is better. In fact, it is just excessive.
Sequels: 3 each. Point both.
So, McClane is up 3 to 2, but what seals the deal is the action movie requirement, you have to get the girl. Riggs gets no girl until Lethal Weapon 3. McClane gets the girl at the end of Die Hard. Point McClane.
I would be a negligent debater if I didn’t mention one of my fellow Albanians (Albany born) John McTiernan. This period in his career is arguably where McTiernan was at the top of his game. In 1987 he released Predator, Die Hard in 1988, and The Hunt for Red October in 1990. The success of these movies is the amount of suspense that McTiernan infuses into the typical action formula. Richard Donner, who was doing good work at the end of the 80’s, and did direct all of the Lethal Weapon films, but McTiernan’s work from 87-90, is arguably the best action of all time.
Lethal Weapon is by many standards a “better” film than Die Hard, but I believe that the true test of each of these movies is the strength of their protagonist. This is where the audience receives the most satisfaction, when the guy we are rooting for wins. Besides the reasons already mentioned McClane receives more empathy from the audience because he is more like the majority of the audience of the actions films: brash, uneducated (in the way of the sniper rifle), and trying to end the fight with his wife which has gone on way too long.
John McClane is America: knocked down, shoeless, and outnumbered by foreign enemies, but still fighting until the last second. This is why Die Hard is superior to Lethal Weapon.
In favor of Lethal Weapon
In my middle school there was a poster that said, “What’s popular isn’t always right and what’s right isn’t always popular.” It’s clichéd and didactic but it does shed some light on the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon debate.
Let’s face it, Lethal Weapon is not popular. Not by a long shot. While Die Hard is routinely showered with praise and gets to dance at the middle school social with all the ladies, Lethal Weapon sits in the corner cursing his fellow action movie waiting for the day when it’s his time to shine.
It’s been over 20 years since Lethal Weapon was released, I’d like to think it’s his time to shine now.
It may seem counter-intuitive to say this, but Lethal Weapon succeeds mainly because of how well it’s written. Common knowledge says that action movies are just supposed to be loud and dumb movies – no brain, all flash, sort of like a shiny hollow apple. But because of the brilliant writing, Lethal Weapon succeeds as one of the best action movies from the late 80s.
Lethal Weapon was written by Shane Black – commonly known as the godfather of late 80s/early 90s action movies. To put things in perspective, Black was hired by uber-action movie producer Joel Silver as an actor in Predator to keep an eye on the newcomer director John McTiernan. John McTiernan directed Die Hard after Predator.
Consider the overall plot structures of each movie. While Die Hard loads all the exposition onto the front end of the movie, Lethal Weapon’s plot unfolds like an onion. Die Hard’s plot is like if a stripper walked on stage nude and started dancing, Lethal Weapon on the other hand is like that same stripper starting fully clothed and seductively removing her clothes.
(Speaking of which, Lethal Weapon has a higher instance of boobs than Die Hard. In fact, the movie starts off with boobs. Not to mention that in Die Hard the boobs are a fleeting image. Lethal Weapon quite literally lets the audience soak in the boobs with a shower scene.)
Die Hard has this odd fascination with giving the audience characters that are extraordinarily passive. Al just stands and talks into a handset until the last minute of the movie. Holly is only used as a human shield and as a plot device to give Hans more screen time. Argyle sits around in a car for the whole movie. Seriously. The character of Al is for the audience to get a perspective of the movie’s action from an outsider. If that were the purpose of Argyle, it would be redundant. He’s not the comic relief either. A successful comic relief would be with the protagonist throughout the events of the movie and give the audience quips about the plot. Argyle just sits in a car. That’s it.
Not only are Lethal Weapon’s characters active, they are three-dimensional too. Consider the following: the protagonist’s weaknesses. Die Hard starts off with McClane scared to fly. This, in turn, gives the writers the opportunity to get McClane to take his shoes off. After that, he’s running around barefoot and cuts his feet up with glass. To me, this series of events comes across as contrived. It seems like the writers wanted to use a cool gimmick like having the main character’s feet cut up by broken glass and then worked backwards to find a way to set off the chain of events.
In Lethal Weapon, Riggs’ weakness is his depression and emotional instability after loosing his wife. This controls all of his behavior throughout the movie. Instead of working backwards and finding questions for answers, Black creates questions and then answers them throughout the movie. “What if a suicidal cop had to stop a jumper from committing suicide?” Also, Riggs nearly kills himself in the first part of the movie. He puts a gun in his mouth and gets a millimeter away from pulling the trigger. That’s a true weakness. Despite McClane’s fear of flying, there’s was nothing to say he couldn’t do the things he did in that movie. For that same reason, that’s why his actions come across as outlandish. In Lethal Weapon we gain the knowledge that Riggs is a talented practitioner of martial arts.
The bonding between Riggs and Murtaugh is more organic than in Die Hard. Riggs and Murtaugh start off hating each other. It isn’t until a shootout where Riggs saves Murtaugh’s life that a mutual respect begins to form. Meanwhile, over at Die Hard, McClane and Al are buddy-buddy after McClane drops a dead body on Al’s car, causing Al to crash down a hill. Because really, who doesn’t make a best friend after dropping a dead body on a car?
The dialogue in Lethal Weapon may be the most defining part of the movie. Black infuses great wit into the tightly paced movie. Die Hard is a textbook example of what dialogue should be in a movie. Characters say what they need to say when they need to say it in order to advance the plot. In Lethal Weapon, however, Black kicks it up a notch by adding some stylistic flair.
This is from a scene in the movie when Riggs and Murtaugh realize the case they’re investigating is more complex than they realize.
We know someone was in bed with Amanda
Hunsaker the night she died.
Right. ‘Til now we assumed it was a man.
Okay. Let’s say it was Dixie.
Okay. Disgusting, but okay: Let’s say Dixie
slipped the drain cleaner into the pills.
Say someone paid her to do it.
Sure. She thinks, terrific, Amanda swallows a couple
downers and boom, she’s dead. Then Dixie–
If it was her–
Right, right, then Dixie has plenty of time
to spritz the place up, get out, whatever.
Except Amanda jumps out the window.
Or Dixie pushes her. Either way
Either way, she’s gotta make a fast getaway, ’cause now
the body’s public. She hauls ass downstairs.
People are coming out saying, ‘What happened? What happened?’.
Someone spots her. She says ‘shit.’
Right. She actually stops and says, ‘Shit.’
The point being, now she has to cover her ass.
Right. So she says, ‘Officer, officer, I saw the whole thing.’
That’s pretty fucking thin.
Hell with it. Thin’s my middle name.
Your wife’s cooking, I’m not surprised.
Remarks like that will not get you invited to Christmas dinner.
My luck’s changing for the better everyday.
In this exchange, we get the story behind the character Dixie and Riggs and Murtaugh get to show off their wit and personalities.
Die Hard is a big, dumb, and yes, fun action movie. Many people give it praise because the movie gives off the illusion that it is an intelligent movie. But Die Hard is more like the kid in 7th grade English reciting cliff’s notes about a book. He can quickly engage in conversations with the teacher, but the conversation never gets deep. Lethal Weapon is the kid in the middle of the class, who’s not only read the book, he could write a detailed 10 page report about it. He’s just too shy to speak up.
Lethal Weapon not only has great action set pieces, it also is populated with intelligent characters who battle each other with guns and wit.
Last, but certainly not least, Lethal Weapon features barrel rolls. Die Hard does not.