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What to Watch: Big Action and Big Laughs in ‘Maverick’ (1994)

A better-than-it-should-be action comedy you need to see.

Maverick is a 1994 comedy/adventure about a wisecracking gambler who needs money for an exclusive game and suffers various mishaps as he attempts to meet the deadline.

So right away, this may come as a shock, but the truth is … Hollywood actually uses old television shows as source for movie reboots. I know. Crazy, right? Hopefully you were sitting. While the practice has become almost gluttonous of late, back in the 90s, it was also kind of a ‘thing’ and while the 80s were still too fresh in studio minds to start mining for old ideas from that decade, everything else was fair game, with myriad shows getting big screen adaptations, mostly to sputter and disappear. Remember The Beverly Hillbillies? The Brady Bunch Movie? Mission: Impossible? Okay, that one was good.

While a few got it right, some got it really right, including Maverick, a western comedy based on the hugely popular adventure show of the same name from the 1950s. Taking a lighter tone than the show, it also steered clear of parody or sarcasm, choosing to homage and honor the TV series rather than poke fun at it. It even cast the lead of the show in a crucial part rather than just a cameo as most others did. Honestly, it’s a charming, funny film that is well worth seeking. Why? I’ll tell you.

Maverick
Maverick, 1994 © Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions

THE STORY: Set in the American Old West, we follow a smarmy but lovable card playing con man named Bret Maverick (Mel Gibson), who starts the film in a rather precarious situation with his neck in a literal pinch. We learn he’s on his way to a major poker tournament with a $25,000 entry fee, of which he is short $3,000. Time to call in some favors and track down those who owe him, something that’s proving not so easy.

Maverick
Maverick, 1994 © Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions

Along the way, he encounters a few colorful characters that do little more than cause mayhem in his efforts to collect and keep the remaining money, including a Native American (Graham Greene) and an outlaw (Alfred Molina). Two others make a point of sticking by his side as well – for reasons I won’t divulge – they being Mrs. Annabelle Bransford (Jodie Foster), a fellow con artist and rival poker player who seems to have met her match in Maverick, and a lawman (James Garner) who is pretty sure Maverick is up to no good, though he’s got secrets all his own. Making it to the tournament proves tough enough. Getting through it though turns out to be the real challenge.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Directed by Richard Donner, who is one of the best at mixing high adventure with good-natured humor (he’s behind hits such as Superman and the Lethal Weapon series), Maverick is actually a pretty good Western film in its own right, capturing a lot of the traditional atmosphere of the era with surprising authenticity if not overly-romanticized. Keep your eyes on the peripheral because the backgrounds are teeming with activity that give the production a lot of texture. I don’t know why, but I really get a kick out of good background characters and action. Call it a quirk but I often tend to watch what’s happening behind the heroes rather than they themselves. To that end, this one has plenty good going on.

Maverick
Maverick, 1994 © Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions

There’s also a very funny cameo that I won’t spoil, but it’s played out exactly as it should and really helps to set and maintain the tone while giving a nod to another Donner film. Bits like this are tricky to make work and not many filmmakers could do it right, but this one rolls out like sugar and earns a laugh. Back in the day, Gibson, on screen, was one of the greats at bringing the funny to many of his films and this is a perfect example.

Maverick
Maverick, 1994 © Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions

Lastly, well, James Garner. While the icon is no longer with us, his work in film and television is almost without equal, and though he never quite reached the level of celebrity he might have deserved, he was critically-acclaimed throughout his career. Here, he is spot on as Marshal Zane Cooper and is great fun to watch recalling his time on the television show while layering in a bit of a wink to the whole show. James Garner, people. You can’t miss.

A GREAT MOMENT: If there is a reliable action cliché in Western films it might be a stagecoach scene, and a runaway coach … well, that’s just icing. Maverick doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel per se by tacking on a stagecoach moment, instead shifting priority away from the expected, but while the action is top-tier, it is propelled by the characters and damn if this isn’t fun to watch.

Maverick
Maverick, 1994 © Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions

In the scene, the three leads are on a stagecoach heading across the open spans of the dusty southwest, traveling at full gallop. Only problem – the driver is dead. And the horses are spooked to run. And there is a canyon straight ahead. Now what? Well, their solution is a rousing moment of great choreography and stunt work mixed with some truly funny dialogue and even greater chemistry between Foster, Garner, and Gibson. This scene is a lighting strike of excellent direction, writing, and acting, and is easily the movie’s highlight. No kidding. This is a great moment.

THE TALLY: It’s a rare thing to find a movie that doesn’t take itself seriously yet goes about seriously making it better than it should be. Maverick has no business being as good as it is, a reboot of a TV show that should have floundered at the box office and disappeared into DVD oblivion and yet, it defies the odds and delivers some of the best comedic moments ever in the Western genre along with a terrific story and a riverboat full of charm.

Maverick
Maverick, 1994 © Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions

The Western has never really been a sustainable movie, titles coming and going that every once in awhile find a film with any traction, and while there are several excellent dramatic films that tackle some larger issues, Maverick finds its footing early and remains a terrific big action comedy to see again, or better yet, for the first time. Queue it up. It’s what to watch.

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