Richard Donner’s 1994 Comedy Western Maverick starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and James Garner is my favorite kind of movie;A character driven, lighthearted, lightweight piece of unpretentious entertainment with charming stars and great production values, which just isn’t made anymore
In the high concept obsessed world of Hollywood, Maverick must have been one of the easiest sells. You can explain the film in just one line; Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid meets Lethal Weapon. This is true for the film, both conceptually and literally. It has the Lethal Weapon duo of Richard Donner and Mel Gibson in front and behind the camera and it’s written by the great William Goldman who wrote Butch Cassidy. And to top that, it was a spin off from the famous TV series created by Roy Huggins. The movie adaptation of Huggins’ The Fugitive was a thunderous success for Warner Bros, just the previous year. So I assume that, Even with the western period setting, it must have been a cakewalk for the makers of Maverick to get a green light at the studio. Early 90’s saw a reemergence of the Western with films like Dances with Wolves,Unforgiven and Tombstone becoming critical and commercial successes. On top of that, they had the hit actor director duo of Mel Gibson and Richard Donner at the helm, who had delivered back to back successes with the three Lethal Weapon movies, not to mention that Gibson was one of the biggest stars in the industry.
I have not seen much of the original T.V. series. From whatever i know of it, it was a western series that put the emphasis on comedy rather than violent shootouts with not so heroic character at the center. I don’t know whether the series in anyway inspired William Goldman in writing Butch Cassidy, but i find Maverick much closer to the High concept one line that i mentioned earlier. A perfect mix of Butch Cassidy and Lethal Weapon series- especially the last ones, when it had started becoming more and more cartoonish. Writer William Goldman uses the 3 character structure of Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid here as well. First of is Mel Gibson as Bret Maverick, an expert card player, who is also fast with the gun. He is goofy, talkative,also a little crazy and capricious (also a bit of a coward). which means that he is a perfect mixture of Martin Riggs and Butch Cassidy. Second is elderly lawman Marshall Zane Cooper played by James Garner. He is serious and laconic with a dry sense of humor like Sundance Kid. By the end of the film, we also find out that he is a father and family man, like Danny Glover from Lethal Weapon (Danny Glover puts in a friendly appearance as a Bank Robber here, which makes up for one of the funniest moments in the film as he and Maverick seems to recognize each other from before, but are not so sure). Jodie Foster as Mrs. Annabelle Bransford, a con artist, rounds out the trio. Like Etta Place in Butch Cassidy, she does swing between both men, though the young Maverick is her primary object of affection. She also resembles Rene Russo’s character from Lethal Weapon 3 , perhaps more funnier and less capable, being an active partner in the escapades of the the two men.The film follows the ‘road movie’ template, with all three characters setting out on a journey to the five-card draw poker tournament being held on the paddle steamer Lauren Belle.
As in Butch Cassidy, Goldman goes about deconstructing the myths of the old west with his usual mix of humor, irony and irreverence. But this is not a deep, melancholic film about the passing away of the old west, but just a solid piece of mainstream entertainment, where every thing remains on the shiny, glossy surface.The film is mounted on a lavish scale and it looks real good. Donner has hired Vilmos Zsigmod, who shot the revisionist westerns like McCabe and Mrs Miller and Heaven’s Gate, to shoot this picture and he does a great job with the visuals.The film begins with a tribute to Sergio Leone’s westerns with extreme closeups of Alfred Molina – who’s playing gambler Angel and main rival of Maverick – and Maverick sitting on a horse with a rope around his neck. What starts out as a traditional western cliffhanger, soon devolves into farce. The film cuts to a flashback showing how Maverick got himself into this situation.Maverick is introduced riding a Burro on his way to the town of Crystal River, intending to collect on debts and win money at card games. His horse was stolen on the way, hence he is riding the Burro, which he promptly sells in town for one dollar. It’s there he meets all the other principal characters like Angel, Annabelle , Cooper,…. . The film is episodic in structure, like Butch Cassidy was, with the trio encountering one adventure after another.
In Crystal River, we get a card game in which Maverick showcases his skills as a gambler; We get a fist fight reminiscent of Butch Cassidy. There is a lot of flirting , kissing, and conning between Maverick and Annabelle, as the latter tries her best to steal Maverick’s wallet, but is always out-conned by Maverick. They set off from crystal river on the ferry, where they run into Zane Cooper. After that, We get an action sequence set on a runaway stagecoach – which is a combination of the climactic chase scene from John Ford’s film Stagecoach as well as the first chase sequence from Lethal Weapon 3, where Gibson gets dragged behind the stage and then jumps on the galloping horses to stop the stage before they fall into a deep ravine. There is a section involving the Native Americans which seems to be a funny nod to Dances with Wolves ,with Graham Greene, who played the Sioux chief in that film, doing a funny parody of his character here. Goldman has his own fun , bringing in the Butch Cassidy references, where the natives teaches Gibson to ride a bicycle; Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy riding a bicycle was a very famous scene in that film The initial cliffhanger – of Maverick with a rope around his neck – is resolved in a humorous manner with the tree branch to which the rope is tied, breaking off and thus saving Maverick’s life. The final poker tournament is a major set piece taking up the final half hour of the film, which obviously Maverick wins. The film ends with a twist, revealing the true relationship between Cooper and Maverick and linking the film with the original T.V. Series.
Mel Gibson is utterly charming and great fun as Maverick. He was almost at the height of his stardom at the time – His Oscar winning actor director double duty on Braveheart was just a year away – and breezes through the film effortlessly. . He is not doing anything drastically different here from his previous films. its a typical movie star performance. He looks great , moves great and lights up the film with his charisma. Though Annabelle is just your stereotypical dumb damsel in distress , playing her is actually a stretch for Jodie Foster. Foster is a serious dramatic actress who has always chosen meaty parts. But this character requires the actress to look glamorous and be funny. She manages to do both effortlessly, She is is such a beautiful women, and aided by April Ferry’s great costumes , she looks luminous in the part. As for her comic timing and performance, there are times when you feel that she is trying too hard; This is the kind of role that Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts could have knocked off in their sleep.Meg was the original choice for the part, but in the end it landed in Jodie’s lap. This is a more older version of the comic-vamp she played in Bugsy Malone, and after doing some really intense stuff like The Accused and Silence of the Lambs, this is a nice change of pace for her. James Garner , the original Maverick from the T.V. series, gives the best performance of the film. It’s surprising to know that Goldman’s original choice for the role was Paul Newman. That would have fully rounded out the Butch Cassidy connection. Newman accepted the role, but the studio refused to pay him his salary, so the deal fell through . In the end Mel Gibson insisted that Garner be cast in the role. Garner plays the mix of seriousness and humor superbly. He also brings the history of the character from the original series as well.
Richard Donner, who was already a veteran of blockbusters with films like Superman and Lethal Weapon series, maintains a great pace throughout.This film was a return to the roots for Donner , who started out directing episodes of the TV series Wild Wild West. Maverick was a box office hit grossing close to 200 mullion dollars. The 90’s was perhaps the last time when movies like Maverick was getting made; films based on star power and concept. Today, we don’t even have any stars anymore, leave alone stars with the charisma and bankability of Gibson, Garner or Foster, to create star vehicles like these for them to ride. Watching this film again made me nostalgic about those times, when they use to create these star\character driven, warmly lit, colorful, unpretentious, unabashedly grand entertainment whose only intention was to give the audience a good time.