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Lethal Weapon: Meet Martin Riggs

By Karel Segers

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With Iron Man 3, Shane Black came back. The screenwriter who was long the best paid Hollywood scribe broke onto the scene in 1987 with the brilliant script for Lethal Weapon - at the tender age of 22. Inspired by Walter Hill and William Goldman, he delivered an intensely commercial screenplay in a wonderfully engaging writing style. It went on to gross $120m worldwide, which was a solid result at the time and an explosive start of Black’s career.


When movie buffs talk about Lethal Weapon’s main character Martin Riggs, they often refer to his death wish, because of the loss of his wife. In my classes, I always explain how an audience cannot identify with suicide candidates. It goes against our primal instinct and we struggle to empathise, except in comedy. Why is Riggs an exception? I believe because he never really goes through with it. That’s exactly the difference between him and the guy on the ledge he ‘talks’ down in his own, radically original way. Riggs’ self-preservation instinct is stronger than his depression. On the primal level, this man is healthy.


I am convinced that some of the most brilliant movie moments from a screenwriting perspective pass unnoticed. Audiences will quote memorable lines and rave about nail-biting action sequences. But the true genius is often in between.  This movie moment combines both. Riggs’ actions here are motivated by the preceding scenes of mourning and depression, but the scene shows equally how this weakness gives him  strength in his profession. Shane Black structures the events in a way that the essence of the character of Riggs can be wrapped up in a single line, just before the movie’s main plot kicks off. So what is that moment, and that line?


Riggs responds to a sniper call and arrives at the primary school that is the setting of the crime. From here the scene runs for exactly three suspenseful minutes. When Riggs hears there is no ETA for the SWAT team, he reconsiders and is about to leave until he sees a nine-year old boy being carried away from the scene. At this point, Riggs is determined: “How good a shot is this guy?” He walks straight into the line of fire and calls out “Hello! Mr Sniper, Sir!” He plants himself cold amidst a hail of bullets, and deals with the situation as only a cop with a death wish could. The subtext is clear - but the final dialogue line from his superior frames this complex character in one simple line: “You’re one psycho son of a bitch! But you’re good.”

About Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst, script editor and producer with experience in rights acquisition, script development and production. His screenwriting classes have trained writers in Australia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and his clients include international award-winning filmmakers as well as three Academy Award nominees. Karel is the founder of The Story Department and!, and he ranks in the world's Top 10 of most influential people for screenwriting on Twitter.


Screenwriting Article by Karel Segers

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