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by: Michael Dequina

From the moment its rush production was announced, media and industry pundits immediately pegged Lethal Weapon 4 as a disaster waiting to happen. What these naysayers had forgotten was that the Lethal series is not one of the most successful action franchises in film history for nothing, delivering all the requisite slam-bang thrills with appealing actors and a generous dose of humor. The Lethals have a set formula, to be certain, but even in this fourth go-round, the magic and charm is definitely still there.

One of the reasons some had doubts about Lethal 4 is a bloated cast, which had sunk last year's fourth entry in another successful Warner Bros. franchise, the Batman series. And though the ongoing cast additions that have characterized the Lethal series have proven successful in previous installments, on paper, it appeared that the core had reached critical mass in Lethal 4. The original's odd couple cop duo of wild and wacky Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and straightlaced family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) successfully became a trio with the addition of motormouthed money launderer Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) in Lethal 2; that three made an improbably seamless transition to four with Lethal 3's introduction of daredevil Internal Affairs officer Lorna Cole (Rene Russo), the female "lethal weapon." To bring the core ensemble to five is a highly risky and impractical proposition, but screenwriter Channing Gibson (working from a story by Jonathan Lemkin, Alfred Gough, and Miles Millar) and series director Richard Donner decided to add wet-behind-the-ears cop Lee Butters (Chris Rock) into the mix. Initially, the strain of accommodating a large ensemble shows. After an entertaining curtain-raising action scene involving Riggs and Murtaugh's encounter with a flamethrower-wielding maniac comes the lengthy introductions/reintroductions of the rest of the cast: not only Leo, Lorna, and Butters, but also those who have lingered in the background throughout the entire series: police captain Ed Murphy (Steve Kahan), police psychologist Stephanie Woods (Mary Ellen Trainor), Murtaugh's wife Trish (Darlene Love), their daughters Rianne (Traci Wolfe) and Carrie (Ebonie Smith), and son Nick (Damon Hines).

However, what could have easily become tedious for fans of the series and even newcomers is made enjoyable by what has become one of the Lethal series' trademarks: humor (it is ironic that the rather dark Shane Black-penned original, in which Riggs was despondent and suicidal, gradually evolved into an action comedy series). The seemingly misguided addition of Butters also proves to be a fairly effective one. Known to everyone except Murtaugh, Butters is the father of Rianne's unborn child and her secret husband, which creates some predictable but no less funny comedy of misunderstanding (Murtaugh interprets Butters's attention and devotion to be something a bit deeper). Butters's most notable contribution, though, is serving as a formidable F-word-sparring partner for Leo, whose new occupation as a private investigator (!) more comfortably works him into the story than his real estate agent status in Lethal 3.

So what exactly is the story? After our intrepid detective duo, both now promoted to the rank of captain (a plot thread that doesn't particularly lead anywhere), along with Leo, stumble upon a shipload of illegal Chinese immigrants, they find out about a dastardly plan orchestrated by an Asian Triad leader (Hong Kong action legend Jet Li, making his American debut). That's pretty much it, but the lack of story is more than compensated by the presence of a terrific villain, the absence of which was Lethal 3's biggest problem. Though his work here isn't quite at the level as that of his Hong Kong works such as the Once Upon a Time in China series, Li's high-flying martial arts (choreographed by, among others


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