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‘Lethal Weapon’ Review: Reboot Scales Down Movie Formula for TV Screen

Clayne Crawford, Damon Wayans star in update of 1987 buddy-cop feature

In a fall TV season well-stocked with blasts from the past, programmers clearly hope that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. Maybe no one’s hopes are higher than the folks at Fox, whose “Lethal Weapon” reboot of the 80’s/90’s-era Mel Gibson-Danny Glover movie franchise is being marketed as a centerpiece for the season.

The original 1987 film, written by Shane Black and directed by Richard Donner, was a template for buddy-cop films to come, generating three sequels and huge box office. Fox’s series stars Clayne Crawford and Damon Wayans — a newer face and an established comedic talent — are intended to awaken the “Weapon” for a new generation.

The results on the small screen are about what you’d expect, and exactly what’s necessary; Fox’s small-screen production is a comfortably predictable reboot of the original species — something for the 47 million or so Americans who weren’t around when the last “Lethal Weapon” movie premiered in 1998.

The back story: Roger Murtaugh, a by-the-book Los Angeles police detective nearing retirement, is paired with a new partner, Martin Riggs, a grief-stricken cop with a raft of personal issues and a suicidal on-duty bravado, stemming from the death of his wife. In the pilot, as they investigate the murder of an ex-Navy SEAL and (later) the kidnapping of the man’s son, Riggs and Murtaugh bond behind duty, wisecracks and their own brand of official mayhem.

That emerging chemistry between Riggs and Murtaugh was the driver for the original franchise, and it’s a prime mover for the Fox reboot. The original storyline’s been tweaked slightly. In the movies, Riggs was already on the L.A. police force. In the Fox show, writers Shane Black (who wrote the original screenplay) and Matt Miller (EP on “Forever”) mine Black’s original story for fish-out-of-water impact by making Riggs a transplant from Texas, lamenting the death of his pregnant wife in a car accident.

Murtaugh juggles work and family life now as before, but in the series, the button-down cop returns to work after a near-fatal heart attack just in time to meet his new partner. As Murtaugh, Wayans (whose movie and TV resumé goes back more than 30 years) brings the best of Glover’s cool, been-there-done-that world-weariness to the same role for television. Wayans is similarly comfortable in his own skin, and it shows in his portrayal of Murtaugh on the job and at home, as husband and father to three kids.

But it’s on Crawford (the standout on Sundance TV’s “Rectify”) to move this thing forward — he is the lethal weapon of the title, after all — and he carries it off with the necessary energy, chewing scenery with efficiency and a folksy, laid-back style Gibson never had.

Crawford ably navigates the emotional distance between cockiness and pain, his facial expressions shuttling from one to the other believably, never so much as when he’s asked about his late wife or when he’s holding Murtaugh’s youngest child, visibly haunted by thoughts of the child of his own he would never know.

Keesha Sharp, Chandler Kinney and Dante Brown are Murtaugh’s dazzling family. Kevin Rahm (“Bates Motel”) plays the vaguely hapless Capt. Brooks Avery, Riggs and Murtaugh’s boss,  just a bit behind the curve. And some things you can see coming already: Jordana Brewster (“Fast & Furious”) plays Mo Cahill, Riggs’ departmental shrink, the one person with some clinical understanding of what he’s going through. Even in the pilot episode, it’s not hard to detect the sparks of chemistry between them, something likely to catch fire. Assuming, of course, the series does.

There are some nice emotional touches here. Early on, we see both men grappling with mortality in believable ways: Murtaugh paying close attention to the heart monitor on his smartwatch, or Riggs hunkered down in self-medicated mourning.

But they’re only touches, brief moments of departure from the original formula. Action, gunplay and sharp-elbowed repartee were the three engines of the “Lethal Weapon” movie franchise. And why, the TV series creators asked, mess with that?

You can hardly blame them; the “Lethal Weapon” films are a known quantity; the four movies grossed nearly $1 billion in the 11 years between the first and the last (no small wonder, then, that a fifth “Lethal Weapon” film is in the works). “Lethal Weapon” the series deserves to be the beneficiary of that goodwill, with a new audience for whom the line between small screen and big screen gets blurrier all the time.

“Lethal Weapon” debuts Wednesday at 8/7 Central, followed by the Season 3 premiere of “Empire.”