One of the most censored action films released in the UK in the 1990s was Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon 4. Eager to follow the box office success of the 15-rated Lethal Weapon 3 in 1992, Warner Bros. were keen to get the same
rating for their theatrical release of Lethal Weapon 4 in 1998.
By now, the name of James Ferman should be well-known to regular readers of Cutting Edge. Born in 1930, Ferman served as the Chief Censor (or as it was later termed, Director) of the BBFC from 1975 to 1999. Normal BBFC procedure would see two or
more examiners reviewing a film and deciding on a rating, with more troublesome films passed on for reviewing by a senior examiner or higher if a clear-cut decision could not be reached. As top man, Ferman had final say; often taking a know
best attitude, with stories told of clashes between himself and more-progressive BBFC examiners. With Lethal Weapon 4, Ferman was so troubled by the film's violence that he sat down with Warner Bros. to draw up a detailed list of heavy cuts
himself that had to be made before the film could be classified with a 15 rating. After Warner Bros. had carried out these cuts, Ferman requested they supply him with a list of the changes that had been made for the BBFC's records. When all was
said and done, over a minute and a half of footage would end up being removed to secure a 15 rating in the UK.
Despite Ferman's direct role in the butchering of the film, the BBFC later commented about the film's changes in what may be seen by some as a shifting of blame towards the distributors themselves:
The re-edited version [of Lethal Weapon 4] removed 90 seconds of personal injury and sadism. The UK distributors voluntarily cut the incidence of neck breaks, head-butts, garroting, eye gouging and the noisy breaking of bones in five of the
The Office of Film and Literature Classification in Australia also passed a slightly cut version of the film with an M rating; an advisory rating allowing anyone of any age to attend, with guidance that the film was more suitable for mature
viewers aged 15 and over.
In this edition of Cutting Edge, we'll be taking a look at the extensive changes made to Lethal Weapon 4 for its original UK release, along with a look at the distributor changes made for the Australian version of the film that was released in
cinemas and on VHS.
BBFC Cuts for a 15 rating: Ferman goes mental
Cut Scenes: Illegal immigrants
The first cuts occur in reel 1 of the film. Riggs boards the Chinese boat hoarding the illegal immigrants and gets into a fight with the ship's captain; but even this brief tussle was too much for Ferman, with his cuts list stating:
In fight on ship, reduce sound of all blows and kicks.
Cut Scenes: Railway crossing
A short while later, the villainous Uncle Benny kills a corrupt American official by seeing to it that his car is rammed into the path of an oncoming train. Keen to reduce what he saw as the personalization of the scene's violence,
Ferman's second cut instructed Warner Bros.:
When car is pushed into path of locomotive, remove shot of driver raising hands as train is about to impact.
The cut version removes 9 frames of this event, which is less than half a second of film.
Cut Scenes: Roof fight
The chief villain of the piece played by Jet Li, Wah Sing Ku, later reprimands the captain of the ship by taking his life on a rooftop. A number of changes were requested here in reel 3, with Ferman requesting:
During fight on roof, remove sight of Chinese villain breaking man's fingers, stamping on his foot, jabbing fingers in his mouth as he screams [and] pulling him down and kneeing him in the head, reducing sounds of blows and kicks throughout.
Immediately afterwards, Ferman also added:
Considerably reduce subsequent garroting scene on roof, removing close-ups of wire around neck, of fingers pulling at it, and of victim's anguished face with wire tightening.
In addition to these visual removals and the lowering of sound effects, Warner Bros. compensated for the reduced volume of impact sounds overall, noting on their cuts list sent to James Ferman that they have:
Increased sound of background music.
Examples of the shots removed from the roof fight
Cut Scenes: Murtaugh's house
The Chinese villains later gain access to Murtaugh's house, taking his family - and Riggs' girlfriend Lorna - hostage. Riggs and Murtaugh stumble upon the situation, and a fight ensues. Ferman demanded multiple changes to this scene, stating:
Considerably reduce fight in house (including sound), removing or reducing the following:
sight of butterfly knife being twirled
view of knife against [Lorna's] stomach and of [her] elbowing man in face
back head butt by Gibson
elbowing by Glover and Russo
woman kicking man on floor in the head
blows and kicks by villain to Gibson and Russo (reducing sound of blows throughout).
Examples of the shots removed from the attack on Murtaugh's house
Despite their best efforts, the Chinese overcome our heroes and set fire to Murtaugh's house; with Riggs and company bound and left for dead. This sadistic scene was too much for Ferman's tastes, however, with his cuts list stating:
In house fire scene, reduce sight of heroes and Chinese family struggling as flames approach, and reduce sound of screams throughout.
Warner's cuts not only removed footage and sounds of the anguished characters on the floor, but also an exterior shot of the burning house and a shot of fire in a doorway within the building.
The excess cuts
Cut Scenes: Freeway fight
Our heroes escape from the fire, and Riggs and Murtaugh go after the Chinese villains, with Riggs getting into a fight with one of the men within the confines of a partially constructed motor home that's currently in transit. Riggs eventually
gets the upper hand, and the Chinese man is hit by a bus after falling onto the road. Ferman cuts to this scene stated:
Considerably reduce motor home battle on freeway, removing kicks, knees and blows to head and all head butts by Gibson, reducing sound of blows throughout.
Remove sight of man being hit by bus.
In total, five cuts removing ten shots were made, not including the reduction of sound effects.
Examples of cuts from the freeway fight
Cut Scenes: Reel 5 Neck break
A scene in reel 5 showed Ku breaking the neck of Hong, the Chinese refugee, which again proved too much for Ferman:
Remove medium close-up of man's neck being broken, together with sound.
As a result, this scene in the cut version loses some of its dramatic impact.
Cut Scenes: Railway escape
Two further cuts were made in reel 5 as Riggs and Lorna have their car pushed onto the train tracks, before Lorna shoots at the men who are ramming them, allowing Riggs to quickly drive away at the last second. As a result, the two men in the
car behind them end up being killed by the train instead. Ferman objected, informing Warner Bros.:
When Gibson's car is pushed onto railway tracks, remove close up of terrified man in car and whip pan to terrified man which follows.
These two snips amount to around half a second of film, with 14 frames missing from the cut version.
Cut Scenes: Exposing Ku
Reel 6 suffered the most edits in the film, with 14 cuts that removed 39 separate shots. The chaos in the warehouse that follows Riggs' and Murtaugh's exposing of Ku's deception to the Chinese general was cut slightly, along with the film's
final fight on the jetty. The first cuts ordered by Ferman were:
During gunfight in warehouse, remove medium close-up of man shot in head, close-up of another man shot in head, and shot of villain breaking man's back in scissor hold on floor (together with sound).
Cut Scenes: Jetty fight
In the final fight between Riggs and Murtaugh and Ku, numerous cuts were made to reduce the violence. The first cut occurs right at the start of the fight, with Ferman having requested:
During final fight on jetty, remove sight (and sound) of villain kicking Glover, then kicking him in head on ground, and then another kick to head in close-up.
To help the continuity of the scene, two non-contentious shots of Riggs were also removed amongst the shots showing Ku kicking Murtaugh in the head.
Ku fights dirty, and further cuts were made to his beatings of our two heroes, with Ferman instructing Warner Bros. to:
Remove sight of villain wrenching Glover's arm, grabbing him by neck and turning (reducing sound of blow and cracking bone). Also remove sight of villain wrenching Gibson's arm, reducing sound of blow and cracking bone.
Riggs is no prude, however, and counters with his signature head-butt - a big no-no in Ferman's eyes. The uncut version shows Riggs head-butting Ku three times, but removing all three of them would have rendered the scene nonsensical. Ergo,
Remove two shots of Gibson head-butting villain, reducing sound of blows.
As a result, Riggs fells Ku with just one head-butt in the cut version.
Ku gets the upper hand, choking Riggs in a deadly grip as Riggs loses strength. The fight at this stage becomes rather brutal, with Riggs sticking his thumb into Ku's eye in a last-ditch attempt to win him over, before Murtaugh drives a metal
spike into Ku with bloody results. It all proved too much for Ferman, with his cuts demanding:
Remove intercut shots of Gibson being choked by villain and gouging his eye in reprisal.
Reduce to establishment only sight of Glover spearing villain in back, removing close-ups of spike emerging through back, victim's agonized face, and spike being pushed further into man.
Remove medium shot of Gibson holding spike, twirling villain, and rocking, turning, and lifting him in air.
After Ku falls into the water with Riggs, Riggs finally triumphs by shooting an AK-47 into Ku at point blank range, but even this was deemed too excessive by Ferman:
In underwater sequence, remove close-up of bullets emerging through villain's body.
Following James Ferman's viewing of the uncut version of the film and his submission to Warner Bros. of his cuts list, Warner Bros. carried out the cuts and sent a list of the changes they had made to the BBFC, as per Ferman's wishes. These
changes are covered in an 11-page document, which outlines every cut in detail, along with the amount of footage removed for each reel, which is measured in feet and frames. From the seven reels that made up the theatrical release of Lethal
Weapon 4 , only reels 2 and 7 escaped unscathed. The final page of this document contains a summary of all the missing footage for the original UK release - and what a sorry story it tells.
In total, ten scenes were affected, with 90 individual shots removed across 38 separate cuts , with a grand total of 136 feet and one frame of film being removed for UK audiences. A final handwritten note on the last page
All punches and kicks reduced in volume.
In other words, even the scenes where visual cuts were not ordered had sound reductions made to satisfy Ferman in order to receive a 15 rating.
James Ferman approved his UK-friendly cut version of Lethal Weapon 4 on August 28th 1998 - two days after a cut version had also been passed in Australia - and the film received a formal BBFC certificate on September 17th 1998 after 93 seconds
worth of cuts. A pre-cut version was later submitted to the BBFC for both pan-and-scan and widescreen video classification, and was passed without further cuts on December 17th 1998 and January 1st 1999. The UK DVD release also featured a cut
A Blu-ray box set of all four Lethal Weapon films was released in the UK in 2010, and saw uncut releases of the second and fourth film for the first time. However, whilst the BBFC website lists a formal uncut classification of Lethal
Weapon 2 with a 15 rating, the database does not contain an entry for the uncut version of Lethal Weapon 4 , despite the fact that the Blu-ray disc carries the same 15 rating as the cut version. Whether the film was formally passed uncut is
not known at the time of writing, but without a BBFC database entry, it would appear that Warner Bros. have once again slipped an unofficial uncut version of a film out for the UK market. For more information about this, readers may wish to refer
Episode 6 of Cutting Edge , which discusses a similar situation regarding the UK Blu-ray releases of some of Steven Seagal's films.
As it stands, UK buyers can currently only enjoy the uncut version of Lethal Weapon 4 on Blu-ray. If the UK box set of all four films was to become unavailable, the US version of the same box set is Region Free - as is the case with all of Warner
Bros.' Blu-ray releases worldwide. This US set can therefore be played on any UK Blu-ray player without issue.
Australian Cuts for an M Rating: Sanity prevails at the OFLC, but not at Warners
Prior to the release of Lethal Weapon 4, the three previous films in the series had all received an M rating in Australia without cuts, which allowed anyone of any age to view the film. Lethal Weapon 4, however, was considered the strongest in
the series by the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) when it was first seen for a theatrical release in the summer of 1998. As a result, it was passed with an MA15+ rating on August 17th 1998 for:
The MA15+ rating would restrict cinemagoers to those aged 15 and over, although underage viewers could attend with a parent or adult guardian. Warner Bros. were keen to attract a wider general audience, and they surrendered the MA15+ rating and
recut the film in the hope of obtaining the more lenient M rating instead.
Three scenes were edited before a resubmission to the OFLC, all of which had caused similar issues with the BBFC.
Cut Scenes: Roof fight
The first cut occurred in the scene where Wah Sing Ku strangles the ship captain on the roof in reel 3. Ku's garroting of the ship captain was trimmed slightly, but unlike the UK version, the rest of the scene was left intact.
Cut Scenes: Reel 5 Neck break
The next cut occurred in reel 5, and mirrors the change requested by the BBFC where Ku breaks the neck of Hong; the medium close-up of Hong's neck being broken was removed by Warner Bros.
Cut Scenes: Jetty fight
The final scene altered was the fight on the jetty. Towards the end of the fight, the bloody close-up of the spike emerging from Ku's back was removed, along with the majority of footage a few seconds later that shows Riggs spinning Ku around
and lifting him into the air before the ground gives way beneath them. Again, the rest of the scene was, perhaps surprisingly, left untouched.
Following these changes, the film was resubmitted to the OFLC and was passed with an M rating on August 26th 1998; nine days after the uncut version had been classified with an MA15+ rating. The cut version was passed for:
The M-rated version was released on rental VHS, although the uncut MA15+ version was released on sell-through VHS and on DVD. Ergo, the uncut version of Lethal Weapon 4 has always been available for purchase in Australia on VHS and DVD; the
latter of which was marketed as the director's cut in order to differentiate it from the censored M-version released on rental VHS.
Lethal Weapon 4 Uncut
As the time of publication, buyers around the world can enjoy the uncut version of Lethal Weapon 4 on Region Free Blu-ray or on the still-available Region 1 DVD from the United States. Fans should avoid the Region 2 UK DVD edition at all costs.
All articles are original works compiled by Gavin Salkeld, with occasional help from a small team of researchers. Particular thanks are due to the BBFC for their diligent and helpful explanations of their interventions.