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Mel Gibson Makes The Most Of ‘Conspiracy Theory’ Role

Warner Bros. made it official earlier this week: It will begin shooting the fourth installment of the “Lethal Weapon” series beginning Thursday.

If you live under a rock somewhere out on Moran Prairie, or if you just don’t pay any attention to star-heavy Hollywood comedy action-thrillers, then you may not be familiar with the “Lethal Weapon” films.

They can be described in two words:

Mel Gibson.

Gibson has been the major star power in all three previous “Lethal Weapon” films - the 1987 original, 1989 sequel and 1992 follow-up.

He isn’t the only major player, of course. Danny Glover plays Gibson’s strait-laced partner. Oscar-winner Joe Pesci, who wasn’t in the original, plays their goofy informant. And Richard Donner, whose career has ranged from the television series “Wanted: Dead or Alive” to the kids movie “Goonies,” directed all three.

But it is Gibson, an Oscar-winner in his own right as a director (1995’s “Braveheart”), who most matters.

It is Gibson, whose film “Conspiracy Theory” becomes available this week on video (see capsule review below), who makes the difference. He has that kind of box-office clout.

“Lethal Weapon” and “Lethal Weapon 3” made $292 million between them. And his 1996 film “Ransom” made another $136 million.

What’s strange about Gibson’s career, however, is that he got his start in Australian films such as “Summer City” and “Gallipoli.”

And then there were the two little post-holocaust studies by George Miller titled “Mad Max” (1979) and “The Road Warrior” (1981). From those action-thrillers, the hunkish Gibson graduated to Peter Weir’s political thriller “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1983), where he proved he actually could act.

Work came fast after that, with him starring in three Hollywood films released in 1984 alone: “The Bounty,” “Mrs. Soffel” and “The River.”

By the time he reprised his Outback hero for “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” in 1985, Gibson was a major attraction.

But something was missing. Something that anyone who’d ever worked with Gibson, or even interviewed him, knew (and, no, I’m not talking about his right-wing political opinions). What was missing was Gibson’s sense of humor.

That’s what went on display in the first “Lethal Weapon.” As Riggs, the manic-depressive half of a Los Angeles police detective duo, Gibson was expected both to cry and to make us laugh. He succeeded.

From there, he has played melodrama (1993’s “The Man Without a Face,” which he directed), costume drama (“Braveheart,” for which he copped his Oscar), Western (1994’s “Maverick”), romantic adventure (1990’s “Bird on a Wire”) and even Shakespeare (1990’s “Hamlet”).

And now, in “Conspiracy Theory,” we have him playing - and pulling off - a role that wouldn’t seem right for someone who has banked on his good looks as much as he has his rough-hewn talent.

There are more amazing Hollywood stories, of course. Even so, Gibson’s is hard to beat.

More about aliens

Another reader, Tadashi Osborne, added three nominations to the list of favorite space-alien films: John Sayles’ “The Brother From Another Planet” (1984), Jack Sholder’s “The Hidden” (1987) and Japanese director Keita Amamlya’s “Zeram” (1991).

Here are the week’s major releases:

Conspiracy Theory ***

Working again with his “Lethal Weapon” director Richard Donner, Mel Gibson plays a cab driver with strange beliefs whose love of Justice Department lawyer Julia Roberts is put to the test when he stumbles onto a genuine government plot. It may take you a while to accept Gibson in a role that seems perfect for Steve Buscemi or Michael Jeter, but once you do, you’ll likely enjoy his performance (especially during the scene where he tries to explain why he obsessively buys copies of “Catcher in the Rye”).

This is formula filmmaking to be sure, what with Gibson’s character proving a seer and with danger lurking under every government badge, but it is done smoothly enough. And it has Gibson, and it has Roberts, who with the strength of “My Best Friend’s Wedding” was enjoying what may have been the best summer of her career. Rated R

Out to Sea ** 1/2

Owing money all around, Walter Matthau convinces his widower exbrother-in-law, played by Jack Lemmon, to accompany him on a sea cruise.

The catch: They’re supposed to work as dance hosts. Relying almost solely on the comedic talents of Matthau and Lemmon, and the charm of veteran star Gloria DeHaven, “Out to Sea” offers a handful of laughs. Most of them occur when the flamingo-limbed Matthau tries to rhumba. Rated PG-13

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