Movie Review: Maverick6 years ago
I am just about old enough to remember a Mel Gibson before his Passion of the Christ and the strange run of headlines which alleged first that he was a wife-beating anti-semite, and then that he was a manic-depressive alcoholic. I say alleged since he came out the other side mostly still protesting his innocence. Back in those long ago precray days, before his reputation as an actor was in tatters, he was an exceptionally charismatic male lead, and a really great comic actor. It was in those Golden Years, shortly after Gibson’s career took off with the Lethal Weapon series, that Maverick was made.
Maverick was adapted by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Princess Bride) from the 1950s black and white TV series about a family of charming gamblers created by Roy Huggins as a kind of antidote to the tough-man Westerns which were hugely popular off the back of John Wayne and John Ford’s myth making. The film preserves some of the tone of the original series (as far as I can tell from clips like this, in which Roger Moore is introduced as the Maverick’s English cousin). Bret Maverick in the series is a fast talking road gambler who constantly calls himself a coward and a villain but ends up doing the right thing in spite of himself. In the series Bret is a terrible gunslinger but tasty in a fight, a fact reversed in an amusing and knowing way.
Richard Donner directs with usual solidity and flare for comedy. As the man at the helm on all four Lethal Weapons – as well as the original Omen and The Goonies – he seemed an excellent choice. Jodie Foster plays a thief whose relationship with Maverick is an amusing blend of sexual tension and distrust, and James Garner – the original Bret Maverick – plays a lawman who accompanies them on their cross country adventure as Foster and Gibson try to scrape together their buy in to the All Rivers Poker Championship: a winner take all five card draw tournament into which most of the main characters end up entering.
It’s A Wild Wild Western
The result of all these influences is a sort of fifties sitcom inflected buddy-movie which is full of mild sex jokes and banterous waffle. Mel Gibson plays the canny con-man playing goofy idiot to perfection: silly grins and ironic self-deprecation abound.
Jodie Foster is great as the cynical thief with the feminine wiles who is constantly walking the line between just using her sexuality to get one over on Maverick, and actually falling in love with him. He on the other hand has to wrestle with his genuine attraction, and equally genuine total lack of trust in her.
This buddy-movie dynamic is the movie’s strongest point —as you might expect from the writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid as directed by the Lethal Weapon guy—but there’s plenty of lower level details to like as well. The movie opens with an understated Sergio Leone pastiche, all extreme close ups of bestetsoned heads and gun belts but avoids the ‘look at me excesses’ of movie reference humor today. While that sort of thing was probably old hat even in 1994, the movie doesn’t over do it. It got the smirk it was going for and then moved on.
That sort of light reference humor is threaded throughout the movie. The towns are all cut out looking storefronts from the world of classic Hollywood Westerns, there is an amusing moment of recognition between Gibson and the bank robber, played by Danny Glover, and of course every road leads through the Grand Canyon or past the great stone monoliths of Monument Valley.
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t trip up once or twice along the way. The voice over is somewhat annoying, and I can only assume from it’s folksy tone that it is a evocative of how the original TV show sounded.
The movie also leans on a number of tropes from the late-eighties/early nineties: the woman who is equal parts infuriated with and attracted to the roguish male lead for example. There is an attempt to counter the sexual politics of this sort of second fiddling role – in one scene Maverick makes her wash his lucky shirt, which she deliberately shrinks in the wash – but it has some of the feel of wanting to have your cake and eat it.
The cake issue crops up with the Native Americans in the film as well. In an injun raid scene, they have the tribe running a scam on a rich Russian by acting up to the White Man’s stereotypes of the chief and the brave. Perhaps innovative at the time, the whole bit feels dated. Although it is rescued somewhat by a super dark joke in which they scam the Russian – who is bored of shooting caribou – into hunting the noble savages for sport.
One of the great pleasures of the film is the way in which the poker scenes – mostly confined to the opening and the end of the film – do not seem to feel the need to treat the audience as if they’ve all just been rolled straight out of an ice pick leukotomy and into the cinema.
For example, the first poker game has a slew of shots of little ticks the players have, and we are all expected to keep up and get that we are being flashed a bunch of tells, some of which pay off in jokes much further down the line. At no point does the voiceover or another character explain the whole business to each other or the audience.
It drops some of this light handedness towards the end. In the final hand, this subtlety is abandoned completely and we are forced to have a member of the audience explaining, one pro gambler to another, what the sitch is. This sort of blow by blow from the audience is one of the many deadly sins of movie gambling, but one which is tolerable given how rare it is in this film.
There are other details like how common slow-rolls are in this world, and how they are always done for maximum comic effect, which some would argue excuses them. However, one feels the Wild West would be a safer place if gamblers didn’t keep winding up the armed and violent criminals they play with by being such smart Alecs all the time.
Not To Old For This S--- Yet.
Overall I’d call it a great 90s comic romp – and a reminder of how funny Mel Gibson was before he went downhill.
It’s far from perfect, but I think I can recommend it just on the basis of how many times I laughed between the opening logos and the final credits.
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