Rene Russo in Lethal Weapon 3: 25 Years of Feminist Franchise Fred
1991 was a banner year for female heroes. We had Thelma & Louise and Linda Hamilton’s buffed out Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. The shockwaves of those badass women were still being felt the following year, so Rene Russo in Lethal Weapon 3 rarely gets mentioned in those conversations, but she was the one who got through to me and made me love fighting women. So for the 25th anniversary of Lethal Weapon 3 (you’ll see by the ticket stub I saw it 25 years ago tomorrow) I’m writing about what Rene Russo’s character Lorna Cole meant to me.
I’d already liked Rene Russo from Major League, Mr. Destiny, and even Freejack, but Lethal Weapon 3 is what made me love her. Lorna Cole is introduced as the film’s female lead, and at first a foil to Riggs (Mel Gibson). She’s an internal affairs officer and by the books, so wild card Riggs is exactly the kind of cop she puts away. It was typical for male dominated franchises to have a different female lead in each sequel. Patsy Kensit was Riggs’ love interest in Lethal Weapon 2 and the first Lethal Weapon didn’t have any, except the specter of Riggs’ late wife.
I suppose in 1992 it was still a surprise when a woman sprung into action and showed she could fight as hard as a man. We take it for granted now, which is a positive side effect of the decades of action heroines we’ve enjoyed since. I suppose the trailer probably gave it away that Lorna could fight but I was still waiting for the full fight scene in the movie.
After half a movie of bickering with Riggs, this is also where Lorna proves she’s not just the sequel’s “girl of the week.” Riggs had a tragic love life full of women he couldn’t protect. While that was a macho ’80s idea of gender roles, a third victim lover probably would’ve driven Riggs to finally complete his suicide. Riggs needed a woman who didn’t need his protection, who could protect herself and go on the offensive. The world needed that too and Lorna Cole was there.
Riggs is genuinely smitten by Lorna. That was also revolutionary for a man not to be threatened by a powerful independent woman, and to celebrate her on top of that. The real subversive twist is not that Lorna can fight, but that Riggs recognizes that’s what he’s been missing in his love life. She also loves The Three Stooges so she’s perfect for Riggs.
When she fights, there are some good stunt double moves too. Today it would be an actress training for a few routines but this is a good mix of Russo and some pros making Lorna even awesomer. I suppose the fights are a tad basic. Post-Matrix, cinema certainly evolved beyond spin kicks and backhands.
I always remember her jeans being tighter. I guess in the ’90s this was as tight as it got. Skinny jeans were decades away.
25 years later I have an even greater understanding of the classic “reluctant ally” trope. The reluctant ally is a classic cliche of action movies, but it’s usually macho rivals who realize they have more in common than at odds. My favorite is in American Ninja where Steve James picks fights with Michael Dudikoff for half the movie, and only after Dudikoff kicks his ass he says, “You’re all right, man” and they’re buddies for the rest of the franchise. Lethal 3 goes a step further. The rivals become lovers. Cops and internal affairs classically don’t get along, although both are necessary. Imagine if they can make that work, a relationship is easy.
Their scar comparing scene is part Jaws macho bonding and part flirtation. Russo had been the fantasy object in other movies, so it’s awesome that she remains fully clothed while Gibson strips down. Of course Gibson always liked showing his butt, but it represents a landmark in portraying powerful women without exploiting their bodies. In fact comic book movies have regressed, since tight spandex or busty midriff bearing uniforms are still the norm.
Lorna is smart too. The plot of the movie is about armor piercing “cop killer”‘bullets. So in the finale she wears two Kevlar vests. She’d shown her intelligence standing up to Riggs and providing vital clues to hunting villain Jack Travis (Stuart Wilson) so this was a rare movie that a strong woman wasn’t just one who could fight. You can be tough but taking precautions is a strong advantage too.
In one scene, Lorna is afraid of dogs so she does need Riggs to do his dog biscuit schtick for the scary attack dog. You can’t win ’em all I guess. She also makes a PMS joke. That sounds like a male screenwriter circa 1991, but it could also be Lorna’s way of disarming male colleagues.
Russo only did a few more tough girl roles and most weren’t fight movies. In the Line of Fire and Outbreak were tough professionals, the latter a scientist. The Thomas Crown Affair was more intrigue than action, although that time there was R-rated sensuality. She got to fight once more in Thor 2 but I get that her career path wasn’t to keep training like a Jennifer Garner, Milla Jovovich, Angelina Jolie or Gal Gadot. She was the capable woman who could play with the boys and make us want her there, rather than grudgingly accept her.
I was disappointed how Lethal Weapon 4 handled Lorna. The bad guys got the upper hand in her scant fight and she fell into more of the unmarried single mother trope, sidelining her. By then, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer was already on TV while Sandra Bullock, Jamie Lee Curtis and even Helen Hunt and Meryl Streep had dabbled in action. Plus Michelle Yeoh went international and Jovovich had begun her action career with The Fifth Element.
So Rene Russo left female action in very capable hands. While I’d loved Sarah Connor and Ripley before her, Lorna Cole became the number one heroine I’d wish to save me as a dude in distress.