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by Mike McGranaghan

It's an old truism that after so many sequels, a movie series becomes stale. While this isn't true all of the time, it's definitely true with Lethal Weapon 4. The original was one of the most exciting, influential action pictures of all time. The second was a very worthy follow-up, and the third was solid, too. By now, though, this formula seems stale. Lethal Weapon 4 has periodic flashes of the old magic, but more often than not it seems like a pale retread of its predecessors.

Mel Gibson and Danny Glover again portray Riggs and Murtaugh, the L.A. cops with a knack for finding action. The movie opens with a ludicrous sequence in which a guy in an armor suit shoots a flame-thrower at a downtown neighborhood while listening to Van Halen on a Walkman; Murtaugh distracts him by taking off his clothes and clucking like a chicken while Riggs shoots him. Another rule of sequels is that action scenes tend to get more preposterous as the filmmakers run out of ideas. Hence, flame-throwing criminals and clucking cops.

Although Gibson and Glover make a great team, Lethal Weapon 4 is stuffed with too many subplots. For instance: not one, but two pregnancies; a young cop named Lee Butters (Chris Rock) with a secret; allegations that Murtaugh has been extorting money; Riggs' fear of commitment to his girlfriend Lorna (Rene Russo); the continuing exploits of Leo Getz (Joe Pesci, annoying as all get-out). Some of these subplots seem like they will be important, only to be brushed aside later. The extortion gimmick is a prime offender. The audience knows from the first three films that Murtaugh is a cop beyond reproach; to accuse him of that crime is a big deal. But the accusations are only mentioned a few times, then casually explained away with some throwaway dialogue delivered in the middle of a gunfight.

The main plot (yes, there's more) involves the oh-so-politically correct situation in China. It's confusing to explain, but it has to do with refugees who work for the Chinese mafia - the Triads - in exchange for their freedom. I think that politics and frivolous action movies are a bad mix. Such subjects are too heavy for a form of entertainment that so willingly relies on mindlessness (Lethal Weapon 2 tried to force a similar message about Apartheid into its story, too). On the plus side, the bad guy is played by Hong Kong action star Jet Li, who is terrifically menacing. He's got lightning-fast moves and tons of charisma. I hope he appears in other American action movies soon.

Lethal Weapon 4 focuses more on humor than the previous films did (although humor has always been an integral part of the franchise). Sometimes it works (Gibson and Glover are always funny together) and sometimes it doesn't. Chris Rock is a funny, funny man but the filmmakers obviously felt forced to accommodate his comedic skills. Every so often, the story just stops while Rock launches into a stand-up routine. And Pesci, who was hysterically funny in the other films, has turned into a one-note character who runs around yelling "whatever, whatever!" all the time.

Right in the middle of it all is a superb car chase - one of the best ever committed to film, as a matter of fact. It involves a busy freeway, an "oversize load" truck, a table, and an office building. How's that for a combination? The scene is over-the-top in the best tradition of the Lethal Weapon movies, but not ridiculous like the flame-throwing guy. I didn't believe it for a second although it was undeniably thrilling.

Lethal Weapon 4 could have used more scenes like it. As it is, there are too many subplots and too many wasted elements. The filmmakers were obviously desperate to make the series seem fresh, so they threw in everything but the kitchen sink hoping something would take hold. It doesn't work. My original inclination was to give the movie two stars, but after contemplating other summer two-star flicks like Hope Floats and 6 Days, 7 Nights, I decided to be generous and give Lethal Weapon 4 an extra half-star. I'd rather sit through this again than those other movies, even if it does disappoint. Clearly, though, it's time for this series to call it quits.

( 1/2 out of four)

Lethal Weapon 4 is rated R for profanity and graphic violence. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.

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