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  Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N3 (November 1991)

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Film: Buddy Counts

By Cynthia Fuchs, George Mason University

Male bonding, man.

Boys-becoming-men-together is probably the most conspicuous theme and frequently used plot device in U.S. films about the Vietnam War and its stateside aftermath. While it might look a lot like Standard War Movie Cliche #101A, male bonding is something else in a post-Vietnam context. Ostensibly, it means breaking boundaries, going outside the law to effect moral order as personal loyalty. For instance, the team of Riggs and Murtaugh in 1987's Lethal Weapon and its 1989 sequel, embody A Special Relationship. They get to win this time. Standing up for each other before anything else, these vets-turned-cops challenge such prosaic evils as corrupt command structures and a national failure of will.

Only male buddydom can achieve such transcendence. (Perhaps needless to say, well-intentioned wives, mothers, and girlfriends of the Sally Hyde variety just "can't understand.") It's about bodies, of course, whether dead or virile. The long shadow of Rambo notwithstanding, Vietnam War films tend to replace the lone hero (typically and ruefully remembered as John Wayne's Ur-Sergeant) with a more egalitarian group ethic. In more generally defined "squad" films like Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986) or John Irvin's Hamburger Hill (1987), for instance, a pervasive distrust of authority compels group bonding in the name of survival.

If they recall the one-from-every-ethnic-food-group diversity of such WWII films as Bataan (1943), the thrust of the recent Vietnam War squad films is more expressly to subvert military and governmental hierarchies, certainly an understandable impulse after mondo-betrayals like Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran-Contra. Unlike its WWII precursors, post-Vietnam movies assert that the System is unsalvageable. All that remain are the hallowed intimate connections born of shared frustration, disillusionment, and revenge.

But as Susan Jeffords points out in The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War, Vietnam War, representations hardly dispense with all pernicious systems. In the case of the Lethal Weapon films, problematic macho stereotypes are repressed, then recreated in the form of a sensitive, afflicted, and specifically interracial friendship, displacing a not-so-covert homoeroticism onto plenty of hyper-hetero camaraderie; that is, violent action. By positing this moralized space outside military or civilian institutions, these movies offer buddy loyalty as the excuse for all other transgressions. Anything goes, in the name of Righteous Indignation. In fact, it's precisely the trip outside command structures that makes the guys' mission crucial, heroic, and heart-warming.

Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon is currently marketed in a video box featuring a portrait of its Vietnam vet buddies: Martin Riggs/Mel Gibson looks straight at us, while Roger Murtaugh/Danny Glover is slightly profiled, his face turned toward us, with his gun raised within the frame. "Glover carries a weapon," the ad copy reads, "Gibson is one. He's the only LA cop registered as a Lethal Weapon." This difference between the black and white partners probably seems more sinister than it did before the Rodney King beating, but the point is not lost in any case: while Murtaugh's gun is prominently displayed, Riggs needs no such sublimation.

The film itself is packed with big time bonding, via action and varieties of hysteria based on the notion that neither man wants to work with a partner: in High Concept terms, it's a match made in heaven. Suicidally depressed and living alone in a trailer since his pretty blond wife's death, Riggs is a Three Stooges aficionado and perpetually gonzo-kinetic: he repeatedly puts revolvers in his mouth and considers pulling the trigger. In the far corner: happily married, be -familied in suburbia, but anxious over his impending middle age, Murtaugh is generally cautious on the job.

They meet cute when a scruffy-looking Riggs pulls out his gun in police headquarters. Thinking he's some punk, Murtaugh jumps him, only to end up on the ground with Riggs's foot in his face. Initiation ritual, FNG style. In fact, Vietnam figures prominently not only in the many-faceted cop plot (they hunt down ex-Air America bad guys who still run heroin from Asia via their old CIA connections), but as well in the particular experience these guys bring to their bonding moments.

After a long first day and dinner at his new buddy's house, Riggs remembers his time in the Phoenix Program: crushing his beer can, he says, "When I was 19 I did a guy in Laos from 1000 yards out with a rifle shot in a high wind." Murtaugh asks, "Did you really like my wife's cookin'?" "No," says Riggs. Bonding over the wife's burned roast: no doubt about it, these boys are smitten.

For the rest of the film, Riggs' weapons prowess conflicts with Murtaugh's midlife crisis. (It's really all about that lethal weapon.) While discussing a case over the din on the shooting range, Murtaugh shows off. He plugs the target dead on. Riggs outdoes him by drilling a smiley face through the same male outline. While racial differences are clearly no problem, Riggs' overt and alarming homophobia only seems to underline their jokey mutual attraction. When Murtaugh tries to pat out bomb-caused flames on Riggs' jacket, the latter pushes him off, saying, "What are you, a fag?"

The repressed body connection finally emerges to ensure their buddied relation: shot down and considered a "corpse" by the villains, Riggs hides in the bushes to pick off villains in a desertscape. The mission: to help Murtaugh retrieve his kidnapped nubile young daughter. In the process the guys are both captured and tortured (Riggs without a shirt), until they escape and return to Murtaugh's home to confront the last and worst of the bad guys, psycho-albino Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey). Riggs and Joshua kick it out in a muddy, bloody Martial Arts free-for all, while Murtaugh shouts encouragement from the sideline. The last shot belongs to the buddies together: they take out the odious Joshua with a slo-mo revolver barrage, both encased in Murtaugh's poncho: one (body) for all.

In Lethal Weapon 2 (also directed by Donner), Riggs' notoriously insane and boyish behavior is somewhat curtailed when he meets and has sex with the white secretary for evil South African diplomats. Where in the first film Riggs has mourned his wife, so that his Vietnam background (and apparent PTSD) are camouflaged by personal tragedy, here the resolution of his rage is more emphatically displaced onto the homoerotic bond between Riggs and Murtaugh, as mediated by fast-talking pipsqueak accountant Joe Pesci.

In fact, the film goes to great lengths to create a climate for the men's relationship that is at once "politically correct" and traditionally structured as a romance. Everyone can hate white South African diplomats, especially those trafficking in gold and murder; these all-purpose villains are on a par with Nazis (as the film emphasizes: their ship is from Hamburg, Riggs calls them the "Master Race," and the one he deems "Adolph" has slick bangs not unlike Hitler's). Given Riggs' history, it's no surprise that his fury at the kewpie-doll secretary's murder takes him "outside the law": "I'm not a cop tonight Rog," he says. "This is personal."

With no women in sight (Murtaugh's long-suffering wife has been sent off to her mother's), the men go into action. What is notable here is that Riggs' anger impels Murtaugh's, despite the fact that the villains have much earlier invaded Murtaugh's home (that he thinks their ski masks are "hoods" suggests a connection to US-brand racism). The black man, who is also a confirmed family man and political moderate (he is nonplussed by his family's tuna boycott), only takes action against the South Africans when inspired by his hysterical white partner.

This implies Riggs' higher moral calling, Murtaugh's small-minded slowness, or the confusion of motives that typifies cop vengeance movies. The text can only contain the incoherence of Riggs' authority by hinting at the men's intimacy, mediated as a reaction to violence in two sequences. The first concerns Murtaugh's rescue from a toilet rigged with a bomb: neither can say the words, but as they face possible death, Riggs says, "I know" as they look into each other's eyes. The homo-attraction reappears with the final image, where Murtaugh cradles a near-dead, beaten and bloodied Riggs in his arms.

Impending death allows these images of private male-on-male contact, linking violence and sexuality. When Murtaugh joins Riggs to "fuck" the villains, they define penetrable Otherness as the limit of male self-identity. Riggs and Murtaugh define their alliance by shooting all the bad guys before they embrace each other...until the sirens sound, that is, and Riggs tells Murtaugh to let go, because "I don't want anyone to see us like this."

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