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Story Shots: Getting wild with Martin Riggs

Hi everyone and welcome back for another story shot, this time focusing on the character Martin Riggs from the original Lethal Weapon movie series and his role as an animalistic character. As ever, spoilers ahead.

What it is

Lethal Weapon is a movie series from the late eighties featuring buddy cop duo Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover). Riggs plays the reckless loose cannon to Murtaugh, the near-retirement by-the-book family man, with no shortage of hijinks ensuing as a result. The first movie revolves mostly around the pair’s relationship and their case trying to stop drug smugglers.

How it works

In the first film, we are introduced to Martin Riggs as a suicidal widower cop with an itchy trigger finger and a death wish. His reckless behavior repeatedly puts his (and others’) life on the line, but, as often as his reckless behavior gets him into trouble, his acute instincts also get him back out. In many cases, these instincts seem almost animalistic in nature, with frequent comparisons and connections to dogs specifically throughout the franchise. A few examples include:

Why it’s effective

Above, I referred to Riggs an animalistic character, but another way to define it might be to say he’s instinctual. What I mean by this is that throughout the films, his actions are consistently driven more by impulse and hunch than logic or strategy. This seems to be typical of most wild cards in buddy cop movies, but I think he’s the most extreme example that I’ve yet seen, and this extreme impulsiveness serves several key purposes within the movie.

The first and most obvious, perhaps, is that it affects how problems are solved, often in ways that increase the danger. As an example, at the start of one movie, Riggs and Murtaugh are trying to investigate a bomb. Riggs insists that there is no bomb, and, once they find it, insists that he can figure out how to disarm it–without training and without waiting for the bomb squad. Spoiler alert, but the building subsequently explodes. In other instances, Riggs goes headlong into chases across rooftops or into other dangerous areas without backup or preparation, much like a hound chasing after a hare. Rarely does he think long and hard enough for a slow and patient strategy, vastly impacting the plot options available for the characters.

Secondly, his instincts provide realistic insight that can’t be discerned by logic. Much as a dog follows its nose, Martin Riggs follows his gut. And since people know that animals can sense things we can’t, when Riggs is tuned into things that normal people aren’t, its believable instead of coming off as unearned or cheap. This is particularly true when his insight pays off on a case or his reckless approach to fighting comes out with a victory for the team. It doesn’t seem unrealistic (in as much as late eighties action films are ever realistic) because we know he’s operating by a different set of rules.

Closely tied to the first one is the fact that his impulsiveness advances and complicates the plot. In the above example with the bomb, the resulting destruction leads to the pair being re-assigned until their station can sort out problems with insurance. In another instance, Riggs shoots and kills a valuable lead, forcing them to pursue other options. These things also impact the pace of the story, with Riggs’ behavior frequently leading them into fast action where a more steady approach might leave them calling for backup or stopping to plan.

The fourth purpose is to tap into the primal. Riggs is a wolf, a thunderstorm. His uncontrollable impulsivity makes him a force to be reckoned with which not only makes him attractive as a character, but also makes us want to root for him. This is something the other characters sense as well, including love interests and his second dog.

Finally, it serves as a benchmark for Riggs’ growth as a character. As a lone wolf at the beginning of the first movie, Riggs is dangerous, putting the lives of himself and others at risk through his feral behavior. As the series progresses, he gets adopted into Murtaugh’s pack, settling into a sort of hierarchy and home. When he meets his future wife, he becomes even more tame, learning how to put priorities besides the thrill of his job and his own pleasures at the top of his list. In some ways its a tale of self-domestication, of honing the wild into something more useful with repeated discipline and care, and since we’re all familiar with the idea of wild dogs, their pack hierarchy, and domestication, it serves as an easy and natural metaphor for viewers throughout his character arc.

Animalistic characters can be loose cannon wild cards, but their instinctual behavior can also add speed, drama, plot complications, and surprising opportunities for character growth to your stories. If you’re looking for a model, look no further than Martin Riggs.

So, how about you? Any animalistic characters that you like? 80s franchises that I shouldn’t miss? Let me know in the comments (exit mobile only mode if needed) and if you want more micro lessons and updates from me, be sure to join my newsletter community.

P.S. Want to flip the script with a dog-like character that acts like a man? Check out my debut YA fantasy novel, The Yochni’s Eye.

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