Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1994)
This might be hard to believe now but, once upon a time, Mel Gibson was one of the biggest stars in the world. Many years before that, another fact that may seem difficult to believe now, westerns were the most popular genre on television. “Maverick,” a Western series that ran from 1957 to 1962, starred James Garner as a rascally card player. It was noted for being a more subversive, comedic take on the genre. For whatever reason, in 1994, Mel Gibson, Richard Donner, and screenwriter William Goldman combined to turn “Maverick” into a movie. Despite the western being an increasingly noncommercial genre in the nineties, Mel’s star power and the general affability of the final film were enough to turn “Maverick” into another hit for everyone involved.
Bret Maverick – card shark, conman, rascal, and occasional reluctant gunfighter – ambles through the Wild West. He’s on his way to a major poker tournament in New Orleans, hoping to prove himself the greatest card player of all time. But he’s a few thousand dollars short. Along the way, he meets Annabelle, a card player and con artist in her own right, and Zane Cooper, a Federal Marshall. Before they even make it to the poker game, all three will have unexpected encounters, all the while trying to figure out the others’ alliances.
Befitting an adaptation of an old TV show, “Maverick” has an appropriately episodic storyline. The main motivating factor is the river boat bound poker tournament, the ultimate destination of the primary characters. But “Maverick” doesn’t arrive there until the last forty minutes. Before that, Bret and his companions wander into a few unrelated adventures. There’s poker games escalating to bar fights, runaway carriage rides, and a mission of women who claim Indians have stolen their money. Usually, such a disconnected, off-balance screenplay would be a weakness. “Maverick” makes it work. The film is like a rambling, funny story told by an old friend, eventually circling back to the main point but making room for some amusing anecdotes along the way.
the brief 1981 revival also starring James Garner, were quite a ways off in 1994. Despite that, it’s easy to see why Bret Maverick was such a memorable, lovable character. Maverick isn’t the traditional Western white hat, in the old TV show or this movie. He’s reluctant to participate in violence, preferring poker to gun fights. When fisticuffs do arise, he’s remarkably good at thinking his way out of it. In an early scene, he impresses some combative card players by beating four men in a fist fight. Later, we discover that these guys were paid by Maverick to take tumbles in the fight. He’s often out thinking his adversaries but in a way that suggests he’s also making a lot of shit up.
Bret Maverick is a character also perfectly suited to Mel Gibson’s charms. The character is introduced on the back of a horse, with a nose around his neck. In voice over, he wryly states that he’s been having a shitty week. Though Gibson excels at playing traumatized heroes, the later “Lethal Weapon” sequels proved that easy-going and quirky Mel is the best version. “Maverick” happily provides us with another oppretunity to enjoy funny, rascally Mel. The character’s roguish attributes allow Mel to display some of that eccentric humor. He’s consistently hilarious and incredibly charming throughout, helping along “Maverick’s” easy going pace.
When you think of early nineties sex symbols, Jodie Foster is probably not the first person that comes to mind. Yet “Maverick” successfully cast her as a woman who uses her beauty and feminine charm to out think the men around her. This usually manifests as her swiping wallets while getting in close for some smooches. An especially amusing moment has Foster’s Annabelle pulling Mel’s Maverick into bed when returning to the poker table is an important matter. Foster has a mischievous glint in her smile, which takes the character a long way. And just to make sure the script doesn’t make her too wily for her own good, Annabelle is also given a clumsy streak.
How!” and playing war drums all day. This is the best example of how “Maverick” subverts and plays with the expected rules of the western. Graham Greene, as Bret’s Indian friend, is also hilarious and has some great chemistry with Mel.
Casting James Garner in the cinematic version of his second most beloved TV character might seem like a gimmick at first. However, Garner is actually acting as Bret Maverick’s foil throughout the film. Playing Marshall Zane Cooper, he often responds to Bret’s antics with incredulous disbelief. He takes Foster’s character at face value, not realizing she’s a con artist too. In many ways, Garner is playing the traditional western hero that Maverick was created to subvert. At least, until the reveal in the last act… Garner gets a lot of dry humor out of the part, utilizing his scratchy voice and rugged charm extremely well.
Alfred Molina returns to a Richard Donner movie for the first time since “Ladyhawke.” He plays a not-too-dissimilar role. Angel takes poker way too seriously. He’s a twitchy-eyed nut, prone to launching into violent rages from the smallest provocations. The way Gibson’s laid back sense of humor triggers Molina’s anger also provides plenty of amusement. Molina has fun in the part, once again making the most of playing an unhinged bad guy.
Once the gang arrives at the river boat, “Maverick” develops into a damn fine gambling flick. It takes a talented director to get tension out actors shadily glancing at each other or reading their handful of cards. The film does a surprisingly good job of balancing humor and some alright tension during this finale. During the climatic moment, Maverick slowly lays his cards down, revealing his winning hand one by one. This also pays off on Bret’s wished-for magical abilities referenced earlier in the film. The last act also brings James Coburn in for a great role, as the organizer of the event.
Like any con movie worth its salt, “Maverick” doesn’t quite end there. Instead, the film happily tacks on a fourth act, where everybody double crosses everybody else and reveals their true intentions. Garner is less heroic then he appears. Coburn wasn’t interested in playing fairly in the poker game. Jodie Foster rips everybody off. My favorite twist is the one that reveals “Maverick” isn’t an adaptation of the old TV show. It’s a sequel. Garner is reprising his original role. Mel is playing Bret Maverick the Second. It’s a genuinely unexpected turn, catching the audience off-guard in the best way. A lot of con artist movies collapse under the wait of the expected, last act twists. “Maverick” is too light-hearted and fun for that, breezing through the twists and turns with ease.