There can be little doubt that a whole new generation is about to discover the charm, wit and fun of “Maverick.” This exuberant Western is a crowd-pleaser that remains faithful to the genre while having a roaring good time sending up its conventions. Industry mavens expecting a $ 100 million domestic box office will not be disappointed. The early summer release should play well through the season and translate readily to foreign climes.
The original “Maverick,” which aired on ABC from 1957-62, was a popular television staple with Jack Kelly and newcomer James Garner as lovable rogue gamblers. Garner subsequently dusted off his character in several television movies. In its new bigscreen incarnation, Mel Gibson takes up the mantle with glee. Jodie Foster as a sometimes treacherous temptress, Garner as a seasoned lawman and a rogues’ gallery of characters are along for the ride.
Director Richard Donner serves it all up as one rollicking piece of dumb fun. But thanks to a keen, comical script by William Goldman and a sterling cast, it’s smart dumb fun.
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The film opens on a high note as Bret Maverick (Gibson) is seen perched on his horse with a noose around his neck. He sanguinely states via voiceover that he’s had a lousy week. It all began on his way to the winner-take-all poker championship aboard the paddle-wheel Lauren Belle.
Then, in flashback, we see him arriving in a small, scenic town to find a card game and win the remaining few thousand dollars he needs for the tournament fee. He stumbles onto a table where the principals include the demure Annabelle Bransford (Foster) and a mean hombre named Angel (Alfred Molina). The extended section allows us to view his con game, which includes a developed pretense of cowardice and a lot of good humor to mask his skill with guns, fists and cards.
He walks away a winner but not without incurring Angel’s wrath and Annabelle’s lust … for his money. She attempts to seduce him away from his winnings, but it’s tough to con a con man. As they head off for the high stakes, they share a stage coach with Marshal Zane Cooper (Garner) and along the route experience a runaway stagecoach ride, bandits and supposedly hostile Indians.
Donner conducts with aplomb the high-wire act of balancing vintage Western set pieces with contemporary high jinks. “Maverick” is an authentic oater that eschews shortcuts. You can almost taste the dust rising up from the pristine period re-creations vividly captured on the bigscreen by Vilmos Zsigmond.
It’s no mean feat that the actors take the script’s myriad improbabilities and conveniences and provide them with a center and logic. Goldman has taken his cue from his own script of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and added dollops of “The Sting” for a tasty confection.
The title role provides Gibson with a cocky, physical character that suits his persona. Unlike his TV predecessor, he loves to fight as much as he likes the banter. Foster — not an obvious choice for his sparring partner — throws herself into the comic, vampish role with abandon. It’s an inspired pairing.
Best of all is Garner, an unsung master of this type of droll fare. He seems more a kindred spirit, even father, to Gibson than his competitor or nemesis. In this realm he is definite royalty, and one can see the line continuing handsomely with Gibson.
There are nicesupporting turns from Molina as the plot heavy and Graham Greene playing the native version of Maverick. James Coburn pops up as the proprietor of the poker tournament to provide the closing section with zest. An endless stream of familiar movie, television and country music faces dot the landscape. Even Danny Glover shows up uncredited as a bank robber with a symbiotic twitch for the hero.
Though it occasionally falters when the pace slackens, “Maverick” is pretty much satisfying entertainment with all stops pulled out. It would be mere quibbling to cite its wrinkles, though those who loved the series have to be disappointed that its theme song and music have been jettisoned.