May 2021

Maverick (1994)

DIRECTOR: Richard Donner

CAST: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, James Garner, Alfred Molina, James Coburn, Graham Greene


Maverick represents just about the perfect kind of breezy, enjoyable summer entertainment for those seeking a light diversion, both paying homage to and at times parodying the classic Western, moving smoothly between action, comedy, and a little romance, and featuring engaging performances from charismatic actors.  There might not be anything deep or substantial here, but for those just seeking some fun, Maverick plays with a full deck.

The film is, of course, loosely based on the 1950s television series starring James Garner (who’s along for the ride in a supporting role here).  Slick gambler Brett Maverick (Mel Gibson) navigates a series of misadventures en route to testing his mettle at an exclusive high-stakes riverboat poker game, including raising the expensive entrance fee (and keeping it from getting stolen from him once he has it), evading a bad hombre (Alfred Molina) who’s hellbent on keeping him from making it to the game, and getting mixed in with fetching purse-snatcher Annabelle Bransford (Jodie Foster) and elder lawman Zane Cooper (James Garner).

Despite its runtime which is arguably a little too long for something this lightweight and insubstantial (just north of two hours), Maverick for the most part moves at a breezy pace that rarely flags.  There’s some action sequences and narrow escapes—an attempted hanging, a runaway stagecoach, an encounter with rattlesnakes, and a couple fistfights and shootouts—but the light tone ensures there’s not much actual serious violence.  The emphasis is on action-comedy, and there’s plenty of witty interplay (and a running joke about how no one can get Brett’s name right) and some tongue-in-cheek homages to other films, like when Maverick encounters a bank robber (Danny Glover) who seems awfully familiar, and references to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Dances With Wolves (featuring Graham Greene, no less).  There’s also a dash of romance to spice things up, and a surprise twist or two.

Reuniting with his Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner, Mel Gibson’s mega-wattage charm and manic, frazzled energy are in full effect, well-contrasted by James Garner’s laid-back deadpan.  Jodie Foster gets to let her hair down from serious dramatic roles like Clarice Starling and show she can be delightfully effervescent in a light comedy part, and she and Gibson have a spark.  Alfred Molina seems right at home donning the black hat in full Western villain mode, and James Coburn (not a stranger to the Western genre) shows up late in the proceedings as the poker game ringleader.  Graham Greene has a bit where he basically parodies his Dances With Wolves role.  Cameos abound (many of them alumni of older Westerns) including Dub Taylor, Geoffrey Lewis, Denver Pyle, Leo Gordon, Doug McClure, Art LaFleur, Waylon Jennings, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Dan Hedaya, Corey Feldman, and famed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.  The wittiest cameo briefly reunites Gibson with his Lethal Weapon co-star Danny Glover (who even gets to utter his signature line about getting too old for this shit).

Maverick is firmly lightweight from beginning to end, but it accomplishes everything it sets out to do in sure-handed, breezy fashion.  The result is no more and no less than a well-crafted slice of summer entertainment.

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